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When I saw the cozy epic concert episodes of Adele’s album launch Oprah-special on Sunday night, I could not help but think that she had gifted the reviewers with a metaphor. She stood on the steps of the Griffith Observatory in a dress that enveloped her shoulders like a black cirrus cloud, and glittering Saturn-shaped balls dangled from her ears. A tattoo of the bullet with her current home, Los Angeles, in the center adorned the forearm that held her microphone. In interviews, Adele has mentioned astrological reasons for this imagery – the tumultuous return from Saturn that occurs at the age of 30 – but it also says something about her status in the pop world. With her massive voice, unique charisma and sustained hit-making power, Adele is not just another star, but her own planet. Her movements change the very tide of pop.
Can a planet come down to earth? That is the question Adele asks in her fourth study release, 30, a chronicle of divorce and soul-searching recovery that is, more crucially, an intriguing redefinition of Adele’s artistry. She has not left her reliable templates – there is a dance floor trampoline, “Oh My God” that will delight fans of “Rolling In the Deep”, and more than one epic ballad built to roll out stormily through a concert hall. But while Adele was admired for evoking in listeners the feeling of being enveloped in emotions, on 30 she offers a more varied experience. It is a shift that is at times subtle, evident in lyrics that gives more room for both self-criticism and a sense of perspective, and in the way she responds to the rhythms and background voices of each song instead of just propelling. She has the command, but takes chances. “Satisfaction is the worst quality to have, are you crazy?” she sings over a beat that carries the perfume of lover’s rock on “Woman Like Me”, one of several tracks produced by Inflo, the producer behind the British R&B collective Sault. She’s dressing up a potential new boyfriend who has disappointed her, but she could offer a motto for her self of thirty.
Adele’s attitude throughout 30 is about commitment – with her own inner struggles, with the new world that opens up when she leaves a marriage, and with the musical environment that has emerged since 25 appeared in 2016. Adele has, it seems, listened to young candidates on both sides of the Atlantic, from London sensations Celeste and Cleo Sol to American R&B banner bearer Jazmine Sullivan. Her ability to modulate her voice has grown and balanced her sheer power, and she uses it to try different phrasing methods, to calm down in the way that many mood-seeking chanteuses do now. It’s a risky move, but Adele remains self-conscious. The storyteller, who once climbed London’s Brockwell Park with friends, returns in these moments to balance her experiments with the salt of her essential clarity, the trait that has always made Adele herself.
“Mama’s got a lot to learn,” she mumbles in the chorus of “My Little Love,” a hip-hop pastiche and the most experimental number on 30, which incorporates telephone voice notes on conversations about loss and safety between the newly single mother and son Angelo. The song is a mood tracker, but that lyrics also serve as an admission of the challenge Adele faces as a white woman who, like almost all white musicians, still stands in great debt to black ancestors.
Adele became one of the most beloved singers of the century by cultivating a space beyond musical trends, grounded in a mobile retro-pop sound that borrowed equally from the soul-driven 1960s, blockbuster 1980s and timeless practice with releasing great ballads from any context at all. . She stood on this surface and shared stories of heartache, making it a haven, but as long as she stayed there, it could often feel as if she was in musical dialogue with nothing and no one. 30, on the other hand, engages with the world – through texts that replace youthful romance with genuine self-examination, events that reflect the present moment and a vocal presence as warm and multifaceted as Adele is in interviews and her applause on stage, where she is a friend who tells long stories and makes jokes, not a force of gravity.
The third decade of the 21st century is not a time of great voices. It’s tempting to see Adele as the last of something, but her genius is on a confusing scale, in translating her greatness into relatability. Adele may stand alone in the pop universe, but when you, the listener, are immersed in her music, she stands alone with you. This ability to connect as an emotional person, to be one friendly planet, has always been as important as the exaltation of her voice. That gift has not faded; she can still animate a strictly emblematic chorus like, “Stop, you’re still strong, love will still come,” with the lifeblood of spontaneity.
Several elements merge to make this Adele’s most musically interesting and conceptually rich work. The starting point is the better-trained voice, which at times sounds like a whole new instrument. Years of care after a vocal cord injury in her early career have prompted her to explore records beyond her reliable gut feeling, and she has become more intuitive, conversational and in touch with the grooves and dance beats that her producers make for her. These collaborators take up the challenge Adele posed to herself by writing songs that dwell on complicated and sometimes even ugly feelings – the guilt she feels about breaking up her family, and her distress over trying to explain the divorce to her son, the shifting enthusiasm and fear as she finds herself without a partner for the first time in her adult life – and does not automatically reach out for the catharsis of big tones that won her international devotion. Don’t worry, dizzying junkies, those tones still strike sometimes. But Adele is more likely to swap them in with a funky breakbeat, as she does on “Can I Get It”, or the gentle push and pull from the sliding “E” on the album’s first single, “Easy On Me”.
Fans decided to cry through 30 as they have done with Adele’s previous albums may be disappointed. This chronicle of separation does not aggressively serve for heartache. Although the advertising campaign has presented the album as a reflection of pain and anxiety after Adele’s separation from her partner of 10 years, Simon Konecki, its spirit is a musical play: the singer tries different tones and techniques, from the jazz standards-inspired opener, “Strangers By Nature” (with its immortal campy first line, “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart”) to the loose, Honky Chateau-epoch Eltonisms of “I Drink Wine” and the twisted flow of the pleasingly sensual “All Night Parking”, which starts with a light-hearted sample from the late Pittsburgh jazz great Erroll Garner and turns it into a sample, which Adele encloses a vocals as light as twilight air.
The free musical atmosphere 30 correlates with the story it tells, about a breakup that is more complicated than the ones Adele immortalized in highly romantic ballads like “Hello.” In her Oprah interview, Adele made it clear that she was the initiator of her divorce, not because Konecki, who remains a “best friend,” was violent or negligent, but because she felt she was growing beyond the relationship. She chose to break up the home she had longed for as a child of divorce, and threaten her son’s pain in the name of greater ultimate happiness for all involved. This most common form of split evokes emotions that her beloved songs of contemplative romantic devastation, such as “Hello” or “Someone Like You,” do not quite serve: the shame of being the heartbreaker, the doubts that come with loneliness, the need to find a way through ambiguity towards inner strength.
“Cry your heart out, it will cleanse your face,” advises an autotuned phalanx of voices to Adele in “Cry Your Heart Out,” as she recounts her daily stumbles. “When in doubt, go at your own pace.” Adele responds to this Motown-style Greek chorus with light-hearted acidity: “Please stop calling me, it’s exhausting,” she sighs. But she owns her mess. “I created this storm, it’s only fair I have to sit in its rain,” she sings, adding a small vocal run to boost her self-confidence. It’s not “Love on Top”, but she’s getting there.
The arrangement of “Cry Your Heart Out” cheats the template for the girl group’s sound in a new way, as do many other savvy miners in R & B history, from the Pointer Sisters to Lauryn Hill and Adele’s flag bearer, Beyonce. Adele has never really circled alone through the pop universe – she began her career in a group of fusion-oriented singer-songwriters, including Estelle, Rumer, Duffy and Corinne Bailey Rae, and now she’s joining a new wave of jazz-soul artists such as Celeste and Sault (and maybe finally nod musically to her “best friend,” Drake). And she always thinks of Queen Bey.
Many years of partners such as Max Martin, Tobias Jesso, Jr. and Greg Kurstin accommodates these adaptations with varying degrees of subtlety; Kurstin co-wrote and produced “My Little Love”, and was apparently inspired by similarly spoken interludes on both Sullivans Heaux tales and Saults Nine. Most telling, though, is her new partnership with Inflo, which manages three tracks, including the evangelical show stopper “Hold On.” The slow crescendo of production from a foggy beginning, with the choir in the distance, to the familiar monumentalism of an Adele barn burner does something about the shape. It makes the song feel more connected to everything in the music that made it possible and built a world around it.
Another important piece of music whose creators built a world around it is, of course, Beyonces Lemonade, the masterpiece that Adele’s last album defeated at the Grammys in 2017, much to the horror of most intelligent music fans, including the planetary voice itself. It is tempting to identify 30 as Adele’s own version of the incomparable expression of heartache and determination, but such comparisons can only go so far. Lemonade engaged the story in a way that 30, whose triumphs are stylistic and aesthetic, but not political, can not. It spoke for a community, a “we”, in a way that Adele, I think, would not strive to emulate. In fact, one of the strengths of knowing 30 is its anchorage in unmistakably personal details, both sonic and lyrical. Adele is still gravitating towards expertly developed large flowers – the couplet that justifies “Hold On”, “May time be patient / may pain be gracious,” is one of her best – but she is also learning that it can be fruitful to go small in a song, to write or sing something that sets the universal aside for the delicate, the offensive, the small gamble. 30 still offers many ways for Adele to be our planet, high in the sky, which makes us wonder. But it’s best when she touches down.