Once again, Adele transforms her heartbreak into a searching, graceful, and incredibly moving album. But the complexity of her emotions and the nuanced production make this her most ambitious work to date.
Early in the press cycle for her fourth LP, Adele referred to 30 as her most personal album yet—a high bar for someone whose wrenching second album taught the entire world how to cry and compelled Julia Roberts to publicly threaten Adele’s next boyfriend. You could say Big Feelings, backed up with the full weight of her expressive mezzo-soprano, made the London-born singer-songwriter one of the most universally admired pop stars on the planet. These include (but are not limited to): giving your heart away and having it played to the beat, resigning yourself to someone who reminds you of an ex, fearing that love will elude you forever or that it’s somehow trapped in the past, crystallized in amber. It’s hard to imagine something more personal than the empathy bombs that Adele typically drops, but she did not lie about 30.
Here, she’s telling a more unexpected story about love: What it means to inflict that pain on your family, to rebuild yourself from scratch, and—*big exhale*—to try to love again. The task necessitated a more nuanced writing style and looser structures to some of the songs, resulting in Adele’s most ambitious album to date. The way the 33-year-old interacts with storied traditions feels more in sync with contemporary pop, R&B, and hip-hop, as though she’s taking cues from newer visionaries like Jazmine Sullivan and Frank Ocean as much as her diva elders. She worked with producer Inflo, of London collective SAULT and Little Simz acclaim, on three songs that bring a real warmth and soulfulness to the record’s final third. And her vocals are more playful: Motown-style background vox are modulated to a chirp on “Cry Your Heart Out” and “Love Is a Game,” in a kind of remix of her usual retro homage.
Adele, like other hermetic superstars, dislikes celebrity but makes no effort to conceal the fact that her life inspired her art. Without much context or arc, the polished songs on 2015’s 25 didn’t land in quite the same way as the overwhelming hits of 21. (Though Adele, like Jennifer Coolidge, did wonderful things to redefine greetings.) On 30, Adele makes her story legible—it’s about “divorce, babe, divorce,” going through your Saturn Return, all the things of Nancy Meyers movies but happening 20 years earlier—and shows that it is both complicated and undeniably her own.
The stage is set by the twinkling Fender Rhodes chords that open “Strangers by Nature,” a collaboration with film composer and producer Ludwig Göransson. Inspired by the songs of Judy Garland and the 1992 Meryl Streep/Goldie Hawn dark comedy Death Becomes Her, Adele mourns her past relationships in a manner so dramatic and forlorn, it’s practically camp—complete with Disney strings and an opening line worthy of a Smiths song (“I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart”). Then comes “Easy on Me,” the grounding piano ballad whose swooping eee’s underscore once again that our most expressive singers can make magic from a single syllable. The song represents the first of many times on 30 that Adele will ask for grace—from herself, the lord, and her young son Angelo.
Adele has said she prompted the end of her marriage to Simon Konecki because she wasn’t happy, and her guilt and hope to be understood by Angelo yields some of the record’s richest material. Inspired by the voice notes on Tyler, the Creator and Skepta’s albums, “My Little Love” includes private recordings of tender bedtime conversations between Adele and Angelo as they adjusted to the divorce. It is an uncomfortable choice to make a quiet storm record telling her son’s story, but it shows a brilliant new shade of melancholy for an artist with an already robust palette. (“Do you feel the way my past aches?” she coos, breaking your heart.) One of five songs on 30 that sprawls past the six-minute mark, “My Little Love” is a staggering journey—tucked at the end is Adele’s version of rock bottom, a raw voice note where she admits that, for the first time in years, she feels really and truly lonely. It is hard to hear her like this: someone who is easily able to tap into a super-human well of emotion plainly admitting that she’s broken, sweat-pantsed, and terrified.
After a strong start taking stock and making amends, Adele dips into a more sultry side with two shorter pop tracks about dating again. The first, a Greg Kurstin collab called “Oh My God,” fits in somewhere between Ed Sheeran and Florence Welch, but the whistle-tone runs that punctuate the chorus, plus those “lord let me’s” towards the end, show how Adele’s vocal tics can do a lot to characterize a song. Unfortunately, little can help “Can I Get It,” an out-of-place appearance from pop pros Max Martin and Shellback that retreads corny ’10s pop trends (cue the whistling). Adele has talked about how the song’s titular chorus is in reference to a relationship, not just hooking up, but it’s also bound to be misunderstood. Which is fine! Lots of big pop songs are. On an album so close to feeling like a holistic statement, this just comes across like the single inserted with pop (and maybe even country) radio in mind.
This middle part of 30 is set back on course by “I Drink Wine,” an Elton John-style barroom singalong with strong gospel undertones and an introspective voice memo at the end. Adele serves take-me-to-church chardonnay realness from the jump, opening the song with a verse about her childhood as a means of perspective on how she got away from herself. She knows the lifelong work of ego-death, even on a divorce record: “I hope I learn to get over myself,” she belts in the chorus, a hint of grit in her low notes. Though the lyrics abound with clichés—“can’t fight fire with fire,” “the road less traveled,” “they say to play hard, you work hard”—it is, on the whole, generous and grounded. If this is what soundtracks the 2032 remake of 27 Dresses, I won’t be mad.
As she moves into the final third of the record, past the Ella-meets-Ariana jazz interlude “All Night Parking,” Adele’s humility extends to her kiss-offs. This only makes them land harder and more deliciously, like being roasted in a few expertly articulated words (“I know it’s hard but it’s not,” goes one). She dresses down a lover for not showing up enough on the slowly unfurling neo-soul of “Woman Like Me,” the best of her tracks with Inflo, and ends up revealing more about her own priorities: “Complacency is the worst trait to have, are you crazy?” starts the chorus. Her voice is low and assured, with a hint of disappointment. The expectations and boundaries that Adele sets for others over the course of 30 feel hard-won.
As much as the prayer-like “Hold On” seems intended as 30’s emotional climax, that honor belongs to “To Be Loved,” with a vocal performance that will go down in Adele lore, right next to 25’s “All I Ask.” She has said she won’t perform it live and only sang it front to back a few times, including a video recording where the power of her voice distorts the audio. The subject matter is too devastating to revisit: the sparse piano ballad, a co-write with Tobias Jesso Jr., is sung to an adult Angelo as an explanation for why her marriage didn’t work. Consider it a kind of companion track to “My Little Love,” a zoom-out, flash-forward moment in the narrative. Adele is at first dignified, then desperate to convey the high stakes of love, and the performance is a marvel of control and phrasing that draws comparisons to the greats like Whitney and Aretha. This is what Adele does best: creates a world of feeling out of little more than her voice and then takes you to the brink. She is wise enough to offer a pillow-soft comedown with closing track “Love Is a Game,” but the damage is done.
In “To Be Loved,” Adele offers the listener a thesis statement for her music: “To be loved and love at the highest count/Means to lose all the things I can’t live without.” Oftentimes she has made us feel the carnage of that risk or captured the yearning side of romance for maximum effect, but 30 shows what happens when you willingly walk off the cliff and live to tell about it. This requires patience, honesty, therapy, constantly taking two steps forward and one step back. Knowing what you want is largely gleaned through finding out what you don’t want. Life is messy and not always built for three-minute pop songs with perfect hooks. Adele was always more complicated than that, and now she has an album that ups the stakes and nuance of her artistry. Not just in telling a story over the course of 12 songs, or by making a record that interacts with more modern musical ideas, or in how she’s using her voice with newfound multitudes, but by being bold enough to share it all so vulnerably, with the entire world listening.
Buy: Rough Trade