It’s time to re-calibrate our understanding of Adele.
We’ve been through this before. Adele’s first album, 19, was styled in the British soul tradition, a banner she shared with Amy Winehouse and Duffy. 21 channeled her intense heartbreak through a powerful prism of pop, soul, country, and adult contemporary production, linked by a frequently astonishing vocal performance. The album was an unprecedented global phenomenon, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide. 25, released four years later, was nearly as successful, conveying her longing for youth through ornate balladry and whispers of contemporary pop.
Adele always upends our expectations by making the music she wants to make, how she wants to make it, on whatever timetable she chooses (what sets her apart from the rest of the music world is how everyone will pause and listen). 30, her first album in six years, continues the trend, reuniting with trusted collaborators Greg Kurstin, Tobias Jesso Jr. and Max Martin and Shellback (new producers include British instrumentalist Inflo and Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson). That doesn’t mean Adele has become predictable or, God forbid, stale. In fact, the album genuinely surprises by taking her back to where it all began.
30 is inspired by Adele’s split from husband Simon Konecki, exploring her reasons for leaving and how she picked up the pieces. It tracks that the emotional turmoil of the divorce would send her to the past to help process her complicated feelings, but how she references 19 is disarming, even risky. Adele embraces her debut’s smoky, jazz-tinged soul to assert her newfound independence and confidence in her abilities. Opener “Strangers By Nature” shares DNA with “Melt My Heart to Stone,” but the winding strings create a mysterious atmosphere that aligns with her uncertainty of the future. Both “Cry Your Heart Out” and “All Night Parking” reference “Right as Rain,” eschewing self-pity and conveying late-night longing, respectively. “Woman Like Me” is a slinky, mellow kiss-off of an inconsistent lover that could slip right into a supper club set. “Love is a Game” is a Motown-styled torch ballad that reads as a stunning tribute to her tragic predecessor Amy Winehouse.
Adele underscores the breadth of her personal and professional evolution by linking 30 to her past. She’s always been a vivid communicator – vocally and lyrically – but she reaches levels of honesty on this album that are staggering. Her divorce has expanded the dimensions of her truthfulness, rejecting hero and villain pop archetypes to dig into the messiness in between. “I Drink Wine” is a warm, homely ode to self-help and how it can help her heal herself and her broken relationship. “Hold On” leans on gospel to hold her up as she struggles to bear the weight of her decision to end her marriage. It’s a song that only works because Adele’s voice is so rich in feeling that you can excuse the pseudo-spiritual proselytizing. (You can hear why it’s Oprah and Tyler Perry’s favorite).
Thankfully, her self-awareness isn’t humorless or without joy, leading to the album’s most accessible and commercial moments. On “Can I Get It,” a fun country-pop ditty produced by hitmakers Max Martin and Shellback, Adele leverages her stark lyricism for a one-night stand. The recently-announced second single, “Oh My God,” a remarkably accessible and sexy uptempo about finding love after utter destruction, is even better. The only glaring omission is a barnstormer like “Rolling in the Deep” or “Set Fire to the Rain,” or even the underrated “Water Under The Bridge.” It’s disappointing on first listen, but the songs on this album feel just as true, which is Adele’s ultimate point.
(The Target deluxe edition has three additional songs. “Can’t Be Together” has the album’s most memorable melody that feels like an egregious mistake to not feature on the standard version. “Wild Wild West” is a fabulous slice of Americana that should’ve featured Chris Stapleton instead of his regrettable appearance on the “Easy on Me” remix.)
While 30 mines the whole divorce journey for material, her son Angelo is the album’s greatest influence. Adele has explained in interviews how she wrote the album with him in mind to help him understand her conflicted feelings about the break-up. The three songs directly addressing him form a collection of heartbreak that is Adele at her most emotionally potent. “Easy on Me” pleads for understanding, relating to his youth to explain why she had no choice but to leave his father. “My Little Love” is a chilled quiet storm R&B track that would offer a dissonant sense of comfort if not for the devastating voice notes she peppers throughout. “To Be Loved” closes out the suite in soul-shattering fashion, as a barely-there piano makes way for Adele to wrench her soul from her body and lay its tattered remains bare. With its painfully realized lyrics and her passionately anguished voice, the song is worthy of being described as her magnum opus, her masterpiece. It’s almost too much to bear.
30 finds Adele at the height of her powers. She has never sounded better; her voice is a stunningly agile, emotionally rich marvel that has no equal in the pop landscape. Her ability to transform complex feelings into accessible, gutting lyrics is unmatched. Her immense commercial success frees her from worrying about TikTok and Spotify trends so that she can make music that speaks to her and pushes her limits. (Within reason; as she said, no one is looking for an EDM bop from her.) It should be impossible that an album about divorce with highly-specific details can be as emotionally resonant across demographic, given everything happening in the world.
Then again, this is Adele we’re talking about; if anyone could do it, it’s her.