30 Review: Adele lets her emotions guide her on her deeply personal fourth album
30, the fourth album by British belter Adele, begins with a line as dramatic as it is cheeky: "I'll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart/For all of my lovers in the present and the dark," she declares as "Strangers by Nature" unfurls, her vocals accompanied by an organ.
Then it happens: The song grows from a bare-bones declaration of self into something softer and gentler, woozy strings and shimmering synths blossoming as she takes stock of the world around her. "It's like I'm noticin' everythin' a little bit more," she marvels, the music rising to meet her sharpened vision. Eventually, she comes back down to Earth and, sleep wiped from her eyes, announces, "All right then, I'm ready."
It's a fitting opener for the singer's latest full-length, which comes a decade-plus after her debut and six years after the boatload-selling, hit-spawning 25. Since that album's release, the world has turned upside down, and so has Adele's life; she married and split from British businessman Simon Konecki, had her son Angelo, and reconciled with her father, who recently passed away. Through it all, even as she held back from releasing new music, she maintained a firm grip on pop listeners matched only by a few. Her powerful mezzo-soprano, imbued with conviction, made songs like the smoldering "Rolling in the Deep" and the gently glitchy "Send My Love (To Your New Lover)" still land with force years after they first surfaced, while her bubbly, forthright personality had audiences rallying around her.
Because of the events in her personal life, 30 was initially pegged as a divorce album. But Adele goes far beyond wallowing in heartache, instead showing the entire spectrum of feelings that come with having one's life completely altered. Appropriately, it also periodically switches up her sound, and often to surprising effect. Her voice, able to wring an entire diary's worth of highs and lows from a single syllable, remains the focal point, but it's framed in new ways. Adele's endlessly lip-syncable music might be made for the more theatrical moments posted to TikTok, which caught fire and became a fresh vehicle for pop stardom in the interregnum between 25 and 30. As it turns out, though, her singing works well inside the stripped-down sonics of bedroom pop, which soundtracks so many of that video-sharing app's brief clips.
Take "All Night Parking," which arrives at 30's midpoint. Structured around a sample of "No More Shadows," a fluttering composition by the late jazz pianist Erroll Garner, it's an open-hearted love song dedicated to someone who's chipped away at Adele's post-breakup armor. Her voice lilts as she enthuses over the blush of first love, a girl-group chorus finishing her thoughts as they tumble from her. These refrains pop up all over 30, sometimes soothing, sometimes sassing; it's worth noting that most of the songs featuring them have vocals credited entirely to Adele, adding to the home-recording vibe.
There's also "My Little Love," a stretched-out R&B track that portrays the constant-learner status attendant to being a first-time parent. It has a windswept feel, with arpeggiated pianos and a gently rolling bassline accompanying her musings on motherhood; it also incorporates voice memos of Adele alone and with Angelo, with Adele telling her child at one point, "I feel like I don't really know what I'm doing" and, later, breaking down the anxiety she's felt since her divorce. It's a heavy, intense song that shows how even "happier" types of love can walk hand in hand with deep pain.
30 does have quite a few grand pop moments, too. "Easy on Me," the album's lead single, is a barn burner flaunting Adele's pipes; "Can I Get It," which pivots on a sneaky whistled hook, struts confidently as she looks for new romance, its carefreeness giving more juice to her longing for true connection; and "Hold On" combines gospel splendor with majestic strings as it provides a supportive shoulder for anyone plagued by self-doubt. The latter is one of three 30 tracks produced by Inflo, of the British funk collective Sault, and his dual embrace of retro aesthetics and of-the-moment reflections gives 30 an added charge.
"Complacency is the worst trait to have," Adele warns over the gathering-cloud guitar loop of "Woman Like Me." On that steely-eyed track, she's addressing a lover who isn't giving her the right amount of attention, standing up for herself as an object of desire and a woman worthy of devotion. But that mantra could also double as a mission statement for 30, a surprisingly personal album that showcases how Adele has matured, both as an artist and as a person, since the middle of the last decade. She could have built on her blockbuster success in a cynical way, copy-and-pasting "Rolling in the Deep" and "Hello." Instead, she lets her emotions guide her, with triumphant results. Grade: A-
- Hear Adele's moving conversation with her son about divorce in powerful 30 song 'My Little Love'
- Adele says her closest friends weren't impressed with their first listen of 'Easy on Me'
- Adele to Oprah: 'My weight loss was a byproduct of managing my anxiety
- The best new songs we heard this week: Adele returns, Young Thug pops the bubbly, Shamir brings the heat
- 30 essential albums from the last 30 years