A heartbreak album with novelistic depth...

Adele – 30 Each Adele album feels like an event. In an era of over-saturation she remains one of the few truly recognisable global icons: a single word name, her life split into distinct chapters, each lodged against a significant age or turning point in her life.

Yet ‘30’ – even by her own standards – has a personal importance and emotional resonance that arguably eclipses even the heights of her previous work. Opening discussing her divorce from Simon Konecki, it touches on motherhood, her need for independence, and the feelings of personal failure and emotional numbness that can follow. Musically, too, it’s her most diverse record yet – one that moves from soul-funk street symphonies to a country-pop stomper via Hollywood strings and – yes – heart-wrenching ballads, the kind only Adele can truly provide.

It’s curious, then, that ‘30’ opens with a moment of sheer melodrama: ‘Strangers By Nature’ finds Adele veiled in black, “taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart”. It’s a bold line, couched in the film noir cinematic lineage of her adopted LA home, and there’s more than a touch of 50s Hollywood glamour to the sumptuous arrange. As emotionally direct as it is, though, Adele’s frank lyricism continually turns back on itself, presenting a maze of feelings to be navigated; “I rebut all my rebuttals,” she says, before pensively asking: “Will I ever get there?”

This prescient question gains resolution of sorts across an album that is both dynamic and confused, riveting and mystifying. ‘30’ offers moments that genuinely punch the listener straight to the gut – the first time you hear Adele in tears to her child Angelo, delivered via a real-life voice note, is truly devastating – yet ultimately this is about the process of personal transformation, not the end result in itself.

- - -

- - -

Constructed in studios across the globe, ‘30’ opens with a flurry of glitzy California pop songs. ‘Easy On Me’ is one of the album’s more overtly ‘Adele’ moments – a blockbuster opening single, but one that leans stylistically on her past. ‘My Little Love’ with its shades of ‘Baduizm’ offers a different slant on music from the soul, a frank discussion of anxiety and its debilitating impact. You would struggle to name a more naked, honest piece of songwriting that will be soaked up by millions around the globe in 2021.

‘Cry Your Heart Out’ opens with a deeply distorted choir of angelic voices, the trippy digi-effects utterly removing you from Adele’s trademark lane. Yet it then switches it up once more, dissolving into a kind of Dap Tone strut, a 60s soul workout that demonstrates Adele’s mastery of classic sounds. The trad-impact of the arrangement, however, is offset by the lyrics – the verse doesn’t use any kind of rhyming structure, simply a series of blunt, sometimes oblique, statements that come straight from the heart. It’s held together by Adele’s incredible voice, unpicking the musicality from heartbreak. The mantra-esque impact can be hypnotic; “All love is devout,” she ponders, “no feeling is a waste…”  

This sentiment leads ‘30’ into its freeing central section. ‘Oh My God’ feels like sheer gospel abandon, with Adele finding redemption in singlehood; “I am a grown woman,” she states, “and I do what I want to do…” This leads into one of the album’s more unexpected deviations, however; the Max Martin helmed country-pop stomper ‘Can I Get It’ and it’s love-it-or-loathe-it arrangement.

The immediacy of these tracks dissipates quickly, however. In the world of ‘30’ freedom and introversion seem to be implicitly intertwined, late to the sombre late night ballad ‘I Drink Wine’. Akin to those 70s Tom Waits ballads – the lonely troubadour in an empty bar-room lit only by the neon outside – Adele returns to this style of avoiding direct rhymes, letting her ruminations spill out on the page. There’s no resolution to be found her, and precious little joy, too; in a world where we’re taught to “find balance in the sacrifice” she doesn’t “know anybody who’s truly satisfied…” Pulling down the veil, we’re invited to look it the loneliness of LA life, that sprawling city where even the simplest journey can find you trapped in gridlock – emotionally or otherwise.

Indeed, this sense of place runs through ‘All Night Parking’. With its Errol Garner inflections – sampling the whole song, even down to the crackle of the record, akin to Kanye West’s production work on ‘The College Dropout’ – it seems to revel in physical attraction. The lyrical tale of seduction, moving between LA and her roots in London, will no doubt send tongues wagging – is it a reference to her Skepta tryst, for example? In the context of the album, though, it expands on Adele’s loneliness – and her need for connection.

- - -

- - -

An album with a disparate cast, constructed in different countries, the opening and mid sections of ‘30’ are dominated by a kind of lush, widescreen cinematic pop template. Adele’s voice is platformed by strings, the voice notes and daring emotional inflections offset by a twilight classicism that references everything from neo-soul to Frank Sinatra’s famously bummed out 50s album cycle. Yet in its last four songs ‘30’ twists once more, and its attempt at resolution contains – in this writer’s opinion – some of the finest music Adele has ever created.

Connecting with London producer Inflo – the genius behind Sault, and Michael Kiwanuka’s Mercury winning work – seems to unhook Adele from her past, allowing those feelings to spill out in a very different manner. ‘Woman Like Me’ revolves around a beatific acoustic guitar riff, the patter of notes providing the album’s most spartan moment; it’s daring, open, and true, with Adele musing on the dichotomy between “complacency” and “consistency” and the process of emotional projection. You’re left to wonder, though, if she’s truly addressing her former partner, or if these comments are aimed a little closer to home.

Dean Josah Cover co-write ‘Hold On’ cuts – if anything – even closer to the bone, with vocal accompanied by a choir billed as “Adele’s crazy friends”. When the beat kicks for the first time ‘Hold On’ becomes a revelatory experience – a pure street soul symphony, with Inflo conjuring the ghosts of those epic early 70s Axelrod arrangements with a masterful, painterly touch.

This dynamic drive then dissolves on ‘To Be Loved’, with its Impressionistic notes of piano affording Adele space to perform vocal pirouettes worthy of Whitney Houston at her most graceful. “I’ll never learn,” she says, “if I never leap” with those long, mellifluous vocal lines drawing every ounce of strength from her throat. “I took some bad turns,” she admits, “that I am owning”. Written alongside previous collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr. the overt prettiness of the melody and chord structure sit in stark contrast to the daring, cathartic lyric – truly, she’s never been this open, this frank before.

Rousing to a conclusion, final track ‘Love Is A Game’ finds Adele back at the roulette table, gambling with her heart once more. Another Inflo production, the steady descending bass-line nods towards New Orleans soul, and the way the beat asserts itself while Adele sings “self-inflict that pain” is absolutely sublime. The sole London credit on the album – recorded in Chiswick’s plush Metropolis Studios – it moves between unsettling Wurlitzer and ‘Mad About The Boy’ style strings, neatly connecting the Hollywood Hills to the vistas of Alexandra Palace. It’s a song that offers conclusion, but no resolution; if the album opens in melodrama it closes in personal redemption, with Adele stating simply “no compromise” before the long, lengthy fade out begins.

‘30’ is a work of personal and artistic triumph, yet it’s not without fault. For all its stylistic breadth and daring deviation, it lingers on widescreen Californian pop, while some new elements – the Max Martin country stomp – don’t gel with the overall palette. But those are small-fry compared to the heights of Adele’s achievements – her first major label album, the balance here is perfect, fusing fan service (the glorious lead single ‘Easy On Me’) with daring new ideas. An album with novelistic depth, when ‘30’ turns once more for its London-rooted conclusion, Adele seems to reach a new level in her stratospheric career.

8/10

Words: Robin Murray

- - -

-

Join us on VERO

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.