Adele – 30
Pop | Soul
There are few acts that can truly lay claim to having the whole world in the palm of their hand. Few artists can make everything grind to a halt and become the name on everyone’s lips by the simple act of stepping into the spotlight again after a few years away. And yet even in this already exclusive club, Adele is still in a league of her own. Just think back on the frenzy that erupted from hearing the words “Hello, it’s me” from one of the most distinct and respected voices in a generation. Those words were all it took for Adele to recapture the hearts and minds of music fans across the globe.
That level of hype and anticipation is something that comes hard earned. It takes a high standard of consistent quality to garner that level of trust from fans, and few would argue against the fact that Adele has crafted one of the strongest back catalogues in pop in the past decade. With that in mind I think her work over her first three records landed her in another, equally exclusive club: acts that could keep following the same formula for years without you ever tiring of it. Having a sound so refined and perfected that changing things up simply isn’t necessary. So when ‘Easy On Me’ dropped, a song of universal appeal every bit as elegant, emotive and memorable as we’ve come to expect, it felt we were in a safe pair of hands and it was easy to buy into the hype.
But while ‘Easy On Me’ is a great representation of Adele at her best, it isn’t very representative of 30 as an album. The warm familiarity of the lead single is a definite outlier in an album full of subtle change and experimentation. While 21 turned her break-up into an album full of hits, 30 doesn’t do the same with her divorce. It’s an album more focussed on reflection than accessibility, her most personal work to date, with the clearest example being ‘My Little Love’. Consisting primarily of recordings of Adele speaking with her young son, and tearfully venting, with a slow burning 70s soul groove acting as the backdrop, reminiscent of something from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. The record eschews big choruses in favour of frank lyricism. ‘Cry Your Heart Out’ features some of Adele’s most candid songwriting to date, offering an intimate window into her processing her pain with lines like “I’m so tired of myself, I swear I’m dead in the eyes, I have nothin’ to feel no more, I can’t even cry” and “When will I begin to feel like me again? I’m hanging by a thread, My skin’s paper-thin, I can’t stop wavering, I’ve never been more scared“.
The forthright lyrics are the album’s biggest strength, but there are some questionable musical choices that seem completely at odds with them. The chorus of ‘Cry Your Heart Out’ is hampered by obnoxious vocal effects, ‘Oh My God’ bafflingly flirts with Latin rhythms, whoever signed off on the backing vocals on ‘All Night Parking’ needs to give their head a wobble, and ‘Can I Get It’ gets off the a promising start before fumbling the chorus with ill-conceived whistling and jarring percussion. I’m all for artists trying something new, but these quirky turns draw you out of the emotional journey her words take you on, and none of them are engaging enough to transform these tracks into enjoyable single material. 30 feels like it’s leaning towards wanting to be a loose concept album and trying to be greater than the sum of its parts, but it feels far too cluttered, convoluted and disjointed to pull it off.
Thankfully things pick up in the latter half of the record, and the music and lyrics begin to better synergise. The jaunty piano on ‘I Drink Wine’ simply oozes charm, ‘Hold On’ evokes Carole King in places, while superb closer ‘Love Is A Game’ builds up to a sumptuous send-off of classic 60s soul. But it’s the stripped back ‘To Be Loved’ that really lets her words shine and gives that astonishing voice the time in the spotlight that the album was otherwise missing. It’s in moments like these that you most appreciate the immaculate production, and how it makes the tracks that work feel so grand and opulent. But sadly it’s here, I realised, where my love for this album ends. Ultimately while 30 is a beautifully well made and well performed album, it’s not one that I found myself connecting with. With a lack of hooks, some perplexing missteps and little cohesion, the end result is that there’s not much here that lingers in my memory and compels me to return.