30: Adele Returns to Music Wiser Yet More Vulnerable Than Ever

Adele 30 - album cover, Adele standing in profile against a verdant green background

In her newly released vault track “Nothing New” with Phoebe Bridgers, Taylor Swift laments: “how could a person know everything at 18 but nothing at 22?” That energy, of a woman whose lived experiences have taught her only how little she really knows, pervades the fourth album of Adele. Like her previous albums 19, 21 and 25, 30 is named after the age at which she wrote and recorded it. It’s been five years since we’ve heard from Adele, and they’ve been an unusually long five years (for context, when Adele released 25, Obama was still America’s president and Britain was still in the EU). The world has changed, the music scene has changed, and luckily, Adele has too, though not so much that her appeal has been diluted any.

Adele was a formative artist for me personally. In 2011, everyone in Britain owned a copy of 21, myself included, making it the first album 15-year-old me ever bought. A decade later and “Someone Like You” is still the yardstick against which all breakup songs are measured.

It’s unlikely Adele will ever escape the long shadow of her 2011, when she achieved a level of acclaim and popularity few artists have ever dreamed of, and she did it on pure fundamentals: songwriting and singing power. Only contrarians don’t love Adele, and a decade later her fourth album arrives to remind us why.

The lead single “Easy On Me” came as perhaps too strong an assurance that the Adele of old wasn’t leaving us any time soon. It’s a fantastic song to be sure, her performance is as flawless as ever, and it’s a strong tune with rich themes of regret and appeal for understanding, but with just a solo piano for accompaniment and a noticeable lack of harmonies, it felt a little too safe for a lead single. Fortunately it plays better on the album; no other track here is so instrumentally anaemic and we’re able to hear the virtuosity of the performance for what it is. The spartanness makes it stand out here, especially coming after the blossoming intro “Strangers By Nature”, which is backed by cinematic strings and comes with a beautiful soulful outro.

Album context and flow is apparently significant to 30, as Spotify recently honoured Adele’s request to have the shuffle feature hidden on albums (the function is still there, but when you hit the big green play button it starts the album from the beginning and not on shuffle now). I always listen to albums in order but I often find it instructive to hear them on shuffle too—breaking up the listening order gives a more clearly defined impression of each track’s character, or so I find at least. There is definitely a strong character and progression to 30, with a more eclectic first half leading into a more baroque and tasteful second.

The one real moment where two songs feel like they’re creating a narrative dynamic though is the transition between “My Little Love” and “Cry Your Heart Out”, which incidentally, might be my two favourite songs here. “My Little Love” is a crushingly raw and affecting dialogue with her young daughter, parsing out her feelings and candidly explaining her depression and her divorce from the girl’s father. This plays out largely in interlude recordings of their private conversations. Adele’s performance here, if performance it be, is devastatingly intimate and vulnerable and the backing humming melody, skin prickling strings and harmonies and the gently knocking percussion is a crushing combination. It would feel insufferably manipulative and maudlin if it didn’t come across so genuine and real, making for one of Adele’s best songs ever.

Now that she’s left the listener sitting quietly, looking at the broken pieces of their heart on the floor, the album transitions into “Cry Your Heart Out”, a stark contrast with a fun, uplifting and perky energy. The use of vocal manipulation on the chorus is an uncharacteristic move for Adele but it’s a refreshing change of pace providing the album’s biggest ear-worm and the up tempo driving beat and affirmative lyrics make it an ideal answer to the unapologetic tearjerker that preceded it.

The next two tracks also happen to be two more of my favourites. They’re not quite as emotionally dynamic or compelling as the last couple but they continue the most buoyant streak of energy you’ll find on the album with strong tunes and a little funk and country flair. The stomp-clap beat and chipmunked R&B of “Oh My God” are a sensuous and flirty change of pace, as is the rustic country guitar on the Max Martin produced “Can I Get It”. This three track run is a tasteful injection of energetic flair into an otherwise emotionally draining album. It’s fortunate that she knows how to give back to her listener from time to time, cause as great as what remains on 30 is, such dynamic moments of tempo and instrumentation are welcome, as the second half privileges songwriting and vocals above personality.

The album’s longer second half is still good, but I do have a few more notes on it compared to the near flawless first. For one, the track “Woman Like Me” where Adele puts her man on blast for not putting enough into their relationship and allowing it to fail. Content wise, it’s a much less poetic take on a familiar subject with a very direct approach and although it took me a while to really accept the fact, I think the chorus here is a bit too one dimensional. Also, despite the softly plucked guitar provided by Inflo (whose work on Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was some of the best production I’ve heard this year) the track is just a little monotonous across it’s five minute run. Once we get past the opening minute and the drums come in, the track rides the same steady pace for the rest of its duration.

I’m also not too hot on the song that kicks off the second half. As a song title, “I Drink Wine” sounds as if Adele is leaning Drake-like into her “mom music” reputation, but the track itself is thankfully as sincere as any other here, seeing Adele lament the lost optimism of her youth and embrace her more jaded current self. I just wish the reedy harmonies were better, a real gospel choir could’ve made this track soar like it’s six minute runtime necessitates. “Hold On” also suffers a little from being a bit of a slow burn, but it feels more rewarding as more instruments and harmonies trickle in on the second half. As the song is about patience, this slow build is of course thematic and has a strong payoff where despite the busier mix, it’s Adele’s own vocals that really bring it home.

Adele breaks with her tradition and includes a featured guest on 30 but it’s far from a case of one of the industry’s biggest holdouts succumbing to feature culture when she includes the name of the late pianist Erroll Garner on “All Night Parking”, which interpolates Joey Pecoraro’s “Finding Parking”, a song which itself sampled one of Garner’s jazz compositions “No More Shadows”. Garner’s piano flourishes are a lovely, classy accompaniment to Adele’s magnetically seductive and soulful presence, and the record static, lounge jazz beat and coy harmonies are all tasteful inclusions too.

As the album draws to a close it delivers a run of increasingly long tracks, each one trying to top the crescendo of the last and frankly succeeding. The closing sister tracks “To Be Loved” and “Love is a Game” act almost in dialogue with one another (the two tracks are identical in length: six minutes forty three seconds) as she debates herself whether it’s really worth letting herself be so vulnerable and open with another person if it demands so many compromises and leads to so much pain. The tones of both tracks are so humongous and grand that whichever side she comes down on, it’s a moment of self actualisation and strength. The climax to “To Be Loved” is probably her biggest vocal flex of the album, bringing the house down with pure power over a solo piano. “Love is a Game” explores the same territory but with a different sonic approach, this time with Inflo going all in with group harmonies, orchestral strings, piano licks, drums and clapping, producing a warmer and more optimistic final note.

Adele albums always feel like special events, it’s rare for either such an old school sound or such a raw display of fundamentals to make themselves felt on such a large scale of relevancy and it’s heartening that her years of seclusion haven’t dimmed Adele’s popularity, for there was little doubt that whatever she delivered on her end wouldn’t have lacked for vocal strength or emotionality. The only question was whether she would still be met by her audience and I’m glad she has. Her playbook hasn’t changed much but and given what highlights the fresher moments were I hope we continue to hear Adele try on different influences, but whatever the weather, her vocal chops and soul songwriting fundamentals will always win her respect.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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