Adele has always had such a big place in music, in pop culture, and thus in all of our childhoods; I’m sure that many of today’s teens are all too familiar with the memories of screaming the lyrics to “Set Fire to the Rain” in the car home from middle school. I definitely was one of those kids. Even as a child who barely understood music, I always loved hearing Adele’s powerful, harrowing voice on the radio — whenever she released new music, just like magic, it almost instantly became a hit.
It’s this reason why I — and millions of her fans across the globe — waited so patiently through the five years between when Adele released her last album, “25,” and now, when we are receiving “30.” Her music has always been palpably personal, and that’s incredibly evident in “30,” which is written in the aftermath of Adele’s divorce from long-time spouse Simon Konecki, with whom she also shares a son named Angelo.
The album makes it clear how much Adele has changed from the divorce, from being a mother, and just getting older. Not only does this show lyrically in the nostalgic laments of “I Drink Wine,” the candid messages to her beloved son in “My Little Love,” and the reflections of the past in “Easy on Me,” but it’s also pretty clear musically. In “30,” Adele makes a few steps away from her typical piano-centric ballad style in favor of synthesizers, vocal harmonies, and even some lo-fi hip-hop style 808s in the track “All Night Parking (interlude),” which, to me, was a little jarring and made the album feel different from her rest.
“30” opens with “Strangers by Nature,” an homage to Judy Garland that could come straight out of a Disney movie; it then moves right into the already-popular hit “Easy on Me,” which in terms of genre and sound is similar to the rest of Adele’s powerful, sad hits (not to say that formula doesn’t work: “Easy on Me” received 178 million YouTube views within a month).
“My Little Love” is a true tearjerker — its melody and production are superb as always, but what stood out to me was the brokenness of Adele’s voice. If you’ve listened to the album, you’ll find that one of the most notable parts of “30” is how honest it is, even with the ugly parts of life — especially the ugly parts of life. “My Little Love” includes a variety of voicemail snippets — spoken confessions — of her anxiety and deep heartache, mainly due to her feelings of guilt toward her son (“I’m so sorry if what I’ve done makes you feel sad”).
She continues that streak of honesty in “Cry Your Heart Out,” the next track, by talking candidly about her tendency to turn to alcohol to push away her pain (“I would rather stay home on my own/Drink it all away”) and how she feels as though her identity is collapsing (“When will I begin to feel like me again?”). However, despite these lyrics, “Cry Your Heart Out” sounds markedly more upbeat than “My Little Love,” and I was surprised by the vocoder in the chorus.
Adele makes sure to stay in the bubble of what we fans are familiar with, but doesn’t allow us to stay entirely within our comfort zone; “Oh My God,” with its distinct hand-clap percussion, has a feel similar to that of “21” classic “Rumour Has It,” except it features a chirp-sounding synth. One of my personal favorites, it’s among the catchiest tunes of the album. Even though melody-wise it reminds me of many of her previous hits, it works because I (and the millions of listeners that brought her to the top of the Billboard charts) adore her previous work.
Then there’s the desperate guitar-centric folk track “Can I Get It,” which wouldn’t sound out of place in a Shawn Mendes or Ed Sheeran album. Yet another honest track about Adele’s desire to break free of the perils of casual dating, “Can I Get It” is a high-energy song whose vigor is knocked down a peg by the subsequent track “I Drink Wine,” a far more melancholy and brutally honest song about Adele’s tendency to turn to alcohol to soothe her pain and her longing for her childhood. Another one of my favorites, the song also features an echo in her chorus that can only be described as sounding like a chorus of gnomes — an interesting, comical twist to such a sad song.
The next track, “All Night Parking (interlude),” was the biggest shock in the album for me because it seems heavily inspired by lo-fi hiphop, with a bright-sounding piano that reminds me of a gentle waterfall and the trap-like drums. Like I mentioned before, I’m mostly used to Adele singing powerful ballads — I never would have imagined her name attached to genres anywhere near hip-hop. And surprisingly, it worked, thanks to Adele’s vocal versatility.
The next two tracks: the bossa nova-sounding “Woman Like Me,” where Adele’s well-supported lower register emerges, and “Hold On,” didn’t stand out as much to me as the other tracks did. In both cases, I felt like I was waiting for some sort of climax using that part of her voice, but it never came.
The penultimate track, “To Be Loved,” is, in my opinion, the most underrated. It’s another heartbreaking piano-centric ballad that harkens back to “Someone Like You,” and though it might not be as catchy or appealing to the masses, I cried far more, which is a high bar. “To Be Loved” feels like Adele’s deepest confession; because of the minimalistic piano instrumental, the listener has no choice but to focus on her broken, desperate voice. It’s a harrowing ballad about love and loss: when you love someone greatly, you are giving them the power to break you; but as Adele powerfully belts at the end, she refuses to let that stop her from loving. It’s such a forceful message from someone who has (very publicly) been through a great deal of heartache.
I would have thought “To Be Loved” would be the perfect ending to the album; it touches your soul, and when you’re done sobbing, it ends with a positive message regarding the heartbreak and sadness that fills the rest of the songs.
However, the finishing track, “Love Is a Game,” is also an effective ending. The Disney-like sound of the song — the opening is complete with symphonic strings — reminds us of “Strangers by Nature,” adding a full-circle element to the track. “Love Is a Game” is more about Adele’s doubts about love, ending the album on a more uncertain note than “To Be Loved” would have. I loved Adele’s voice in this one; the ending of the song explodes into chorus and louder and louder strings, which provided a rather satisfying ending.
All in all, fans had sky-high expectations for “30,” and Adele delivered; she appeased listeners with more classic-sounding tracks while also successfully stepping out of the typical powerful ballad that characterized her past hits. However, because she refused to entirely keep within her original formula, I don’t expect “30” to be as much of a hit as “21” or “25.” It’s clear in her music that, just like her fans, Adele has done a lot of changing. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Claire Shin is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect at the 'Prince.' She can be reached at email@example.com, on Instagram at @claireshin86, or on TikTok also at @claireshin86.