Adele's 30 is unpredictable, experimental... and kind of sexy
Here's what to expect from the biggest album of the year.
Photography Simon Emmett
According to a much-referenced study designed to identify major stressful life events, divorce is the second most stressful thing a person can go through. Upon first listen to Adele’s new album, 30 — out 19 November — that fact becomes pretty apparent. Her first record in six years, the 33-year-old has, perhaps jokingly, said that her fourth album is about “divorce, babe”, and, to be fair, it is. But peel back the layers and the album unspools into a stunning, searing and often upsetting journey of reflection and self-discovery that somehow makes the world’s realest popstar seem even more human.
Heartbreak, of course, is Adele’s currency. Since her debut album, 2008’s surprise hit 19, the Tottenham-born singer has cut her heart open and poured her sorrow, misery, anguish and grief into music that has soundtracked breakups all around the world. It was her second record, 21, that sent her stratospheric, and specifically the crushing “Someone Like You”, which has since become the fourth best-selling single of the 21st Century. That song, as well as a teary and achingly sad performance at the Brit Awards in 2011, told a vivid story about overcoming loss and the trauma of putting on a brave face when confronted with your past. It cemented Adele as one of music’s most adept storytellers: she became the voice for millions of lovesick souls.
Her third album, 25, was something of a different beast. Released in 2015, it broke numerous chart records, becoming the fastest selling album of all time in the US (with nearly 3.4 million copies sold in its first week) and winning five awards at the 2017 Grammys. But thematically 25 was a different kind of album. Having met her then husband and had a child, the record didn’t traverse the pain of heartbreak as both 19 and 21 did. Rather, it was a meditation on loneliness, time, ageing, and the scars we brandish once we’ve stepped out of the pain of our heartache. It wasn’t necessarily jolly, but it certainly lacked the rawness exhibited on 21. Musically, it was safe too, feeling firmly rooted in what had previously worked.
Six years, a divorce and a difficult period of self-discovery later, the same can’t always be said for 30. While some of the hallmarks that people have come to expect from an Adele album — big ballads, soaring vocals, a rejection of musical trends and a healthy dose of musical nostalgia — are all present, it’s also a record that’s unexpected and, at times, a little weird. Rather than just another Adele album, 30 feels like an artist flexing their creative muscles in order to make sense of the chaos of their life.
This is clear from album opener, “Strangers by Nature”. Written with composer Ludwig Göransson, and apparently inspired by Judy Garland and the music of classic Hollywood, it’s a rich, orchestrated number that has the air of a classic Disney song, albeit with lyrics that gut you like a knife. “Oh, I hope that someday I’ll learn to nurture what I’ve done,” she sings at the song’s conclusion, referencing her decision to blow her life up and divorce the father of her son.
Regret, guilt and the hope for absolution are themes that run throughout. The devastating “My Little Love”, a song written specifically for her son Angelo, features voice notes between Adele and her child. “I don’t recognise myself in the coldness of the daylight,” she sings on the verses over pillowy 60s-R&B production. “So I ain’t surprised you can read through all of my lies/I feel so bad to be here when I’m so guilty/ I’m so far gone and you’re the only one who can save me.”
It’s perhaps the most haunted and vulnerable Adele has ever sounded. It’s also a rare, candid moment from a superstar who has gone to great lengths to protect her privacy. “Mummy’s feeling a little lost at the moment,” she says in a voice recording to Angelo at one point; a later voice note sees her in tears: “This is the first time I left that I feel lonely and I never feel lonely.”
Speaking during a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Adele said that her marriage didn’t end in some dramatic finale. “I just didn’t like who I was,” she said, adding that she felt lost in the marriage. “It made me really sad. Then having so many people that I don’t know know that I didn’t make that work… it fucking devastated me. I was embarrassed. No one made me feel embarrassed, but you feel like you didn’t do a good job.”
This embarrassment underpins many of the songs on 30. “Oh, what have I done yet again,” Adele sings over a piano on the opening of “Hold On”. “Have I not learned anything/ I don’t want to live in chaos.” On the Motown-indebted “Cry Your Heart Out”, she sits in her devastation, the buoyant backing track juxtaposed against a cold wave acceptance as she sings, “I created this storm/ It’s only fair that I have to sit in its rain.” The meme-ably titled “I Drink Wine”, one of the songs that feels quintessentially Adele, touches on realisation, Adele looking forward instead of wallowing: “You better believe I’m trying to keep climbing,” she cries, flanked by a choir. “But the higher we climb feels like we’re both none the wiser.”
It’s here, too, that Adele stretches her songwriting muscles – “I Drink Wine” lacks any discernible chorus, instead letting the lyrics lead the direction it heads in. The same can be said for Max Martin collaboration “Can I Get It”, a Frankenstein creation about newfound singledom and sexual exploits that could be three songs in one. “Can I get it right now?” Adele asks on the chorus, “Let me just come and get it.” It’s the most produced and pop that she’s ever sounded and it suits her. There are other moments of levity, too, mainly when the focus pivots away from divorce and on to the singer’s forays into dating: “Woman Like Me” is an acerbic kiss off to a fuckboy, Adele dubbing an ex-lover lazy. “Consistency is the gift to give for free,” she bites, “and it’s key”.
What’s noticeable about “Woman Like Me”, as well as songs like “I Drink Wine”, the Mary J Blige-esque “Oh My God” and rousing “To Be Loved”, which sees Adele leaning into melodrama in the tradition of Celine Dion, is how well constructed the songs are. Instead of chasing the stadium-sized sing-a-longs that peppered 25, the songs on 30 are crafted in order to tell stories, but also to be as robust as possible. There’s no cheap grab for a hit or box ticking exercise; everything feels in service of songs, even the dramatic power-balladry of lead single “Easy On Me”, which is perhaps the hookiest moment on the record.
Closing 30 is the majestic “Love Is A Game”, a warmly-produced and cinematic finale that’s both reverential of the duets between Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell and somehow effortlessly current. “Love is a game for fools to play/And I ain’t fooling/ What a cruel thing/ To self-inflict that pain,” Adele sings on the chorus over a swell of strings and 60s girl-group backing vocals in what could be seen as a rejection of romance in the future. It’s not that defeatist, though. Rather, any weariness stems from the fact that she knows that no matter how much it has hurt in the past, she’ll always love again: “No amount of love can keep me satisfied,” she admits during the bridge. “The feelings flood me to the heights of no compromise.”
Perhaps more so than any album Adele has released before, 30 tells a succinct story from start to finish. Like a classic Hollywood movie, it has a timeless quality to it, its narrative told so evocatively through her lyrics, song structure and the consistently lush cushion of excellent production work that it’s hard not to see it through a cinematic lens. It speaks to Adele’s strength as a storyteller: even at her most raw with her life in ruins, she always has control of her craft. But with 30 she’s pushed it further than ever before. It’s a successful gamble that only goes to prove why she’s the best selling artist of a generation. No one does it better.