When a song makes you cry, are you crying for the singer? For the story the song tells? For the way it reflects your own experiences and memories? On “30,” her fourth album, Adele Adkins pushes for all of those at once, counting on her untrammeled musicality to pull together the empathy of pop with personal sympathy for a performer who’s grappling with motherhood, fame and changes of heart.
It’s an album, Adele has said on Instagram and in her Nov. 14 concert-and-interview TV special with Oprah Winfrey, about her divorce from Simon Konecki, the father of their child, Angelo. It’s also about the aftermath: guilt, drinking, depression, loneliness, self-doubt and, eventually, moving on. The split is apparently amicable; Konecki shares custody and lives across the street from Adele in Beverly Hills.
Adele chose to divorce because, she told Rolling Stone, “I didn’t like who I was.” She addresses it most directly in “I Drink Wine,” a crescendo of confession and self-help underpinned by churchy piano and organ: “How can one become so bounded by choices that somebody else makes?” she sings. “How come we’ve both become a version of a person we don’t even like?”
In her six years between albums — a gap extended by the pandemic — Adele has largely stood aside from the miniaturization and gimmickiness of current pop hitmaking. She can; she’s one of the few remaining stars with ardent fans across multiple generations, and she keeps her ear on pop’s history more than on fleeting trends.
Adele ended her televised concert extolling “real music,” “live music” and “real artistry,” virtues of the vanished analog era. While many current streaming hits are just two minutes long, half of the songs on “30” run longer than five minutes, including extended stretches of piano and voice alone, taking their time and savoring dynamic, non-metronomic ups and downs. Adele doesn’t rule out electronics, but she makes clear that she doesn’t have to rely on them.
Her voice — cooing, declaiming, arguing, teasing, imploring, quivering, breaking, shouting — is rightfully at the centre. Even as she sings about desperation and uncertainty, on “30” Adele’s voice is more supple and purposeful than ever, articulating every consonant and constantly ornamenting her melodies without distracting from them. Details are fastidious; in “I Drink Wine,” she sings “I’m trying to keep climbing up” while her voice rises in an upward arpeggio. Her emotion is always matched by her concentration.
The songs on “30” (Columbia) can be extravagantly theatrical. The album begins with “Strangers by Nature” and ends with “Love Is a Game”: leisurely, string-laden ballads that evoke bygone Hollywood opulence. Yet their lyrics frame the other songs on “30” with a new, grown-up skepticism and ambivalence about love itself: In “Love Is a Game,” Adele belts, “What a cruel thing to self-inflict that pain.”
In “Cry Your Heart Out,” the chorus is delivered mockingly — “Cry your heart out, clean your face” — from a computer-tuned girl group, over a beat that evolves imperceptibly from vintage Motown to reggae. But in the verses, even as Adele sings with a cheerful lilt, her lyrics hit a depressive nadir — “I have nothing to feel no more/I can’t even cry” — and face her own culpability: “I created this storm/It’s only fair I have to sit in its rain.” As she does throughout “30,” Adele combats misery with virtuosity.
Most of the songs are produced, co-written and largely played by the supremely flexible Greg Kurstin, who abets tracks as varied as the bare-bones piano ballad “Easy on Me” — a plea and a self-justification — and “Oh My God,” a foot-stomper that has Adele wondering whether it’s too soon, or she’s too bruised, to flirt again. Adele enlisted the mathematically minded Swedish pop experts Max Martin and Shellback for “Can I Get It,” which provides a mid-album lift with an upbeat rhythm guitar and a whistled hook as she returns to dating: “I’m counting on you/to put the pieces of me back together,” she sings.
Another computer confection is “All Night Parking,” a time warp of old and new, which juxtaposes florid, speed-fingered, cascading samples from jazz pianist Erroll Garner with a traplike drum-machine beat, while Adele shows off jazzy syncopations as she sings about 21st-century lust: “Every time that you text/I want to get on the next flight home.”
But the album is also, at times, candidly and unsettlingly documentary. Adele sings to her son in “My Little Love,” offering reassurances and apologies: “I’m so sorry if what I’ve done makes you feel sad,” she offers in a low R&B croon. The track interrupts — and nearly derails — its moody, undulating, Marvin Gaye-ish groove with digital voice notes that Adele recorded at tearful low points and in conversations with her son. “Mommy’s been having a lot of big feelings recently,” she tells him. “I feel a little trapped, like, um, I feel a bit confused, and I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
The discomfort is part of the point. On “30,” Adele complicates the clear pop roles of lover, heroine, victim or fighter. One thing that’s absent from “30” is the kind of righteous revenge song, like “Chasing Pavements” and “Rolling in the Deep,” that the younger Adele would hurl at exes. On “30,” Adele more calmly extricates herself from a romance in “Woman Like Me,” a low-fi bossa nova produced by Inflo (Dean Josiah Cover) from the British collective Sault, wondering how a suitor could be so lazy and complacent when a little more consistency could win her over.
But more often, Adele’s songs present her as her own target and her own unfinished self-improvement project. The album’s core style is secular gospel, with Adele’s voice gathering itself over hymnlike piano chords, seeking faith not in a higher power but in herself. In “Hold On,” another collaboration with Inflo, she sings, “I am my own worst enemy/Right now I truly hate being me” as a faraway choir urges her to hold on, and her voice rises to a kind of prayer: “May time be patient/Let pain be gracious.”
The album’s longest track, “To Be Loved,” is also its most minimal, exposed production: just a live-sounding duet with Adele’s co-writer, Vancouver’s Tobias Jesso Jr., on an echoey piano. Slowly, almost hesitantly, and then with growing solidity and vehemence, Adele grapples with what it means to share her life, trying to work out where trust and dependence turn into self-erasure: “To be loved and love at the highest count/Means to lose all the things I can’t live without,” she sings, then vows, “I can’t live a lie.”
Her phrases swell, tremble and spill over into melismas, and her verses crest with two different peaks. “Let it be known that I cried,” she sings, but later she trumpets, so loud it overloads the microphone, “Let it be known that I tried.” It’s awash in regrets, but decisive; it’s high drama and a musical tour de force. And it’s clearly not the end of the story.
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