Adele Returns With Free Rein and Fearless Vulnerability on ‘30’

British sensation, Adele, has always revealed herself to the world by age, at “19,” “21,” “25,” and now “30,” with each record representing a stage in her evolution, personally, and as an artist. Adele’s latest collection of songs finds their inspiration in self-examination, as the singer journeys through a divorce, and motherhood as a single parent — confronting doubts, fears and regrets. It is these realities that have primarily directed the content of her new album. Moreover, the sonic and lyrical directions that Adele takes on “30” points to a new confidence, one that finds Adele channeling her circumstances and emotions into songs that allow her to shine with a freedom and maturity that surpasses her previous material. Adele created a stir with “19,” broke through dramatically with “21,” and secured her place at the top of the music industry with “25,” by staying safely within the confines of previous albums’ hits. “30” is a body of work that stands alone, while showcasing all of Adele’s celebrated qualities, but without the marked inhibition that characterized her previous work. The album is freer, and Adele’s most emotional to date, allowing her dramatic flair to take on new proportions. 

Adele is known for tunes that are effusive and comfortably cliché, and she stays true to form from the opening line, “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart,” on “Strangers By Nature,” where she reflects on her divorce. The quaint melodies and florid string arrangement are captured in vintage recording, with only Adele’s voice in higher fidelity, as she attempts to reframe her struggles by romanticizing the mystery at their core, singing, “I hope that someday I’ll learn / To nurture what I’ve done.” Lead single, “Easy On Me,” delivers everything one might hope for in an Adele song. Adele’s gliding ascensions in the chorus remind you, in a flash, why she rose to stardom in the first place. The command of her voice can easily carry the listener, and she sings with such a skill and flair that she could say anything and impress, but the raw emotion on display derives its force from the backstory. The lyrics are open ended, but, in the album’s context, appear to constitute a divorcée’s entreaty to her child.

“My Little Love” finds Adele addressing her son directly, and incorporates him talking on the track, along with a voicemail recording in which you can hear her break into tears. The song is a florid, string-laden production, crafted in the style of ‘70s soul classics, and the combination of Adele’s vocal chops and the nostalgic resonance is a winning formula. Cry Your Heart Out” kicks off directly with the titular refrain, as if to preempt any protracted wallowing in the reverberations of the previous track. Even a solicitation to sorrowing is a call to action, and this one is delivered in textbook doo wop vocal harmonies that drive home the message with nostalgic force. Adele’s sound is heavily informed by R&B and soul traditions with vestigial elements preserved in the broader pop sphere that easily devolve into retro fare. Adele has always drawn comparisons to fellow Brit Amy WInehouse, and she warrants them on a track like this.

It’s at this point in the album that the music starts to veers off slightly. “Oh My God” viscerally recalls “Rolling In the Deep,” in its swift urgency and blues bravado. Adele sounds assertive and spirited, humming in tandem with her lyrics over a handclap-heavy stomp, so much so that when she proceeds to lyrics like “I don’t have to explain myself to you / I am a grown woman and I do what I want to do,” the words seem like a bit of an afterthought. “Can I Get It” again echoes “Rolling In the Deep,” and this time quite blatantly, but only for a moment, in Adele’s first vocal phrasings, and the acoustic guitar backdrop. In a flash, the tune takes a completely different direction, although not a particularly compelling one. This is a pop song so ergonomically designed that little room is left for substance. It happens to feature Max Martin and Shellback on production duties, and stands as an illustrative example of misdirected capacities. Adele has worked with may illustrious producers, with Mark Ronson contributing to “19,” and Rick Rubin to “21,” and her latest work involved Greg Kurstin (Beck, Foo Fighters, Sia,), and Inflo (Sault, Little Simz), who rise to the task perfectly well, but the Martin/Shellback contribution was ill-advised.

“25” occasionally felt held back by a desire to play it safe and satisfy all formulaic criteria. “30” is not immune to similar instincts, although it’s overall running time is considerably less compromised by them. “I Drink Wine” prematurely erupts into a gumbuya chorus with a throwaway refrain of “So I hope I learn to get over myself / Stop tryin’ to be somebody else.” Fortunately, even though it’s likely coincidental, Adele has built in a functional disclaimer by taking the liberty to put on an entirely unrecognizable voice for her backing vocals, so as to make the chorus sound like a product of different people united in a sing-along. The relative silliness of the resulting voice, and of the idea to even don such a voice, imparts a certain playfulness, in the light of which the trite content becomes less objectionable. The song expresses a recurring theme, with Adele insisting, “You better believe I’m tryin,” then interjecting, “But the higher we climb feels like we’re both none the wiser,” but finally swinging back to optimism as she continues, “So I hope I learn to get over myself.” The same sentiments are expressed in “Hold On,” when Adele admits, “I am so tired of battling with myself, with no chance to win,” only to rebound in a chorus of “Hold on / Let time be patient / You are still strong.” Overly melismatic singing, on display throughout the track, can easily lose some of its emotive capacity to the distraction of the flashy affectations, and it takes an exceptional singer to avoid such pitfalls. Adele is easily the very example of the exemption, effortlessly belting out lines with a decisive spontaneity that cuts right through. 

The lapses of numbers like “Can I Get it” are remedied in tracks like the short and sweet “All Night Parking (With Errol Garner) Interlude,” which establishes a mood, lingers leisurely, and leaves on a high note. Ultimately, the interlude format lends itself to an album full of caprice. Songs like “Woman Like Me” give shape and color to the whole album, with the parameters loosened just enough to allow for a freer expression with more character making its way into the music. It turns out that this song is essentially a merciless diss track directed at Adele’s ex-husband, who overall is treated more sparingly than the ex who made his way into the lyrics of “21.” “To Be Loved” is easily the emotional apex of the album. Over a sparse, plaintive piano backdrop, Adele runs through reflective musings in drawn-out utterances that are always subject to soulful flights of fancy. Her voice flutters, leaps, and soars in climactic moments of full Whitney Houston histrionics, with an occasional hushed utterance thrown in for good measure. The “I’m tryin’” of “I Drink Wine” has now given way to a final chorus line of “Let it be known, let it be known that I tried.” After all of this intensity, Adele somehow gracefully reverts back to the levity in the overtones of the opening track. “Love Is a Game” makes due on the eponymous statement over a warm, string-laden backdrop, amid which the declaration rings like a joyous revelation. 

“30” brings a welcome resurgence of everything that catapulted Adele to stardom, this time in the sobering narrative context of life after divorce. These traumatic experiences have inspired some of Adele’s most expressive music to date. The eureka moments come along with a fair share of less inspirational turns. Still, the album overall strikes as both authentic and artistically progressive, considerably more so than “25.” For Adele, turning 30 brought with it an increased confidence, allowing for fuller, more gratifying self-examination. And, of course, it’s cathartic, dispelling the drama of the backstory with a booming voice that immediately prevails, and is captured in enough solid tunes to reasonably hold listeners off until the next chapter in Adele’s musical life story. 

30” releases Nov. 19 on Apple Music.