“I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my of my heart,” Adele sings on the Judy Garland-inspired first track “Strangers by Nature” on her fourth album, 30, her long-awaited follow-up to her blockbuster 2015 album 25. Adele’s second and third studio LPs sold a combined 50 million copies. They revived a monoculture that hasn’t been seen since the early 1990s when a single album dominated the music scene in such a massive way. Critics also showered the British diva with plaudits, praising her piercing, lovelorn lyrics and soulful voice. The true successor to Dusty Springfield as the greatest blue-eyed soul singer, Adele enjoys the kind of widespread commercial and popular success that seems impossible in a music industry so scattered and diversified with the advent of streaming and the internet.
Because 25 was such a landmark album, expectations are expectedly high for 30. So, the question is: does Adele return with an album as good as its predecessors? The answer isn’t easy because so much of 25 is so gorgeously overwrought, like the best of Adele, but at the same time, the singer is offering sounds that sound a lot like what she’s done before. 30 is an impeccable album with a strong set of songs. But its impact will feel somewhat diminished compared to her previous work because we’re getting a very familiar Adele.
Fans of Adele will be thrilled with 30 because it operates as the sort of extravagantly depressing record that should be prescribed as medicine for a stomped heart. She maintains the somber sound that defines her previous music: ponderous pianos, heartbreaking lyrics, and tear-stained soul wailing. Inspired by her divorce as well as the pandemic, it’s not surprising that Adele maintains her recognizable musical persona.
Like some of the most renowned breakup albums, such as Marvin Gaye’s bitter Here, My Dear (1978) or Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black (2006), 30 gives listeners a palette of sorrow, different hues, and shades from resignation and despair to hopelessness and resilience. The album’s first single is the solemn “Easy on Me” (already a massive hit) that takes stock of her failed marriage. A beautiful piano ballad that showcases Adele’s phenomenal voice and unmatched emoting in a clean, understated setting. The lyrics are predictably blistering as she beseeches empathy, pointing out, “I had good intentions/and the highest hopes / But I know right now / That probably doesn’t show.” With a customarily spotless performance, she conveys the well-deep sorrow she feels and molds her large, flexible voice to pluck and pull different colors from the words, alternating from a full-bodied belt to a precious whisper.
The pain in “Easy on Me” is genuine and elegiac. On the soulful “My Little Love”, which takes its cues from cinematic 1970s soul, she emotionally flails herself, literally breakdown in bitter weeping. The song addresses her son (who pops up on the song), and the lyrics are a difficult listen. They’re so raw and naked that it’s uncomfortable to continue with it, and the discomfort grows as the emotional baggage depicted in the lyrics threaten to collapse whatever dam is holding Adele in (that dam eventually does burst at the end of the song when Adele’s lapses into a distressing monologue about her loneliness which is punctuated by the singer’s sobs)
Adele’s affection for classic soul is evident throughout the album. “Love Is a Game” starts with some tight strings that will remind listeners of Lulu’s 1967 hit “To Sir, with Love”. With a muted organ and syrupy strings, the song posits Adele as a throwback girl singer like her foremothers like Lulu, Dusty Springfield, or Petula Clark. The girlish backup vocals complete this loving pop pastiche. The emotional depth of Adele’s lyrics and her distinct vocals belie the light, swinging pop of Inflo’s production.
For much of 30, Adele seems stuck on grief – particularly on her feelings of self-doubt and self-incrimination. But there are moments in which she’s trying to find her way out of this emotional well. On “Hold On”, she’s fully aware of how self-destructive she can be and the importance of being kind to herself. It’s a bracing highlight of the album, with Adele discovering the sacred euphoria that comes from transcending pain and loneliness. As she urges to “Hold on” and pushes for patience and grace, she’s joined by a gospel choir of her friends who join her for a beautiful, spine-tingling crescendo. The combined power of Adele’s exquisite voice and a rousing all-female choir is fantastic. It’s an empowering moment that shakes and jolts 30.
So much of 30 is devoted to mournful ballads that an unabashed pop song like “Can I Get It” feels a bit shocking, almost disrespectful, and discordant. Written with pop masters Max Martin and Shellback, “Can I Get It” has echoes of Adele’s 2010 hit “Rolling in the Deep”, and it has an earworm of a hook and chorus that’s as catchy as anything that Martin’s done (he’s worked with Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys so crafting radio-friendly pop is his forte). Because the song has a teen-pop patina, one can mistakenly dismiss it as trite or bubblegum. But the lyrics – which profess and promise a love so devoted it sounds desperate and dependent – have the sting and candor of Adele at her most honest.
Honesty is a hallmark of Adele’s sound, and it’s clear when listening to 30 that she’s not interested in changing her signature sound too much. She knows what works, and she’s learned pretty quickly that her grand, majestic ballads of heartache are what makes her a musical phenomenon. And in that light, 30 isn’t a groundbreaking album, nor is it particularly experimental. But it’s supremely satisfying and great as a listening experience. There are no glaring missteps, and it’s generally a very good effort from a singer who could have crumbled under the pressure of heightened expectations, but instead continues on the path she forged for herself.