“No one knows what it’s like to be us,” sings Adele on the opening track of her new album, 30 (her first in six years). Close, but no cigar. Perhaps it’s true that no one knows what it’d be like to be her and her ex-husband, who usually comprise the “us” of this red-raw divorce record. But as we all know by now, Adele’s music is not listened to at a remove: we make ourselves the subject of her songs. And so this lyric becomes untruthful. There is a person who knows exactly what it’s like to be us, and who writes belters about it so we don’t have to. That person is Adele herself.
At times, Adele seems all-seeing, all-knowing – appropriate, because it’s apparent from the outset of this album that she is welcoming us to the church of the heartbroken. Organ quivers and Pastor Adele begins: “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart.” So far, so predictable. Adele has been delivering gut-punches and lumps in the throat for over a decade, since she was a teenager, on 19, 21 and 25 (all named after her age). Now, she has become a figure of both relatability (cockney accent, hun-culture blow-dries, and aforementioned romantic woe) and aspiration (best-selling female artist of the century, millions and millions of pounds in the bank). It might be easy to dismiss 30 as more of the same. But Adele Inc – with its “proper set of pipes” and doey fake lashes – has not yet subsumed Adele Adkins, the complex person – and monstrously accomplished songwriter – who on 30 is more visible than ever.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of Adele Inc: the lovesick-but-resigned-to-it ballads that have defined her career. When Adele got married she joked on Carpool Karaoke with James Corden that she’d have nothing left to sing about. But alas, the marriage ended, and on “To Be Loved” she admits that she’s “as lost now as I was back then”, which may feel to some like a strange relief. Lead single “Easy On Me”, too, delivers the piano-and-husky-vocal hot toddy that fans have been craving in her six years of silence; she returns often to her favourite lyrical tic of rain, rivers, and water in general, which is perhaps some sort of Freudian method for getting us to weep.
Yet elsewhere she experiments with something new. LA – the location of her mansion, where she lives over the road from her ex (with whom she shares custody of their son) and next door to Jennifer Lawrence – seems to have rubbed off on her. Where 19, 21 and 25 loitered in London drizzle and smog, 30 has palm trees swishing in the distance and the smoky glamour of old Hollywood. Movie schmaltz frames the album and its narrative arc with slinky strings on opener “Strangers by Nature” and final track “Love is a Game”, which settles in old-school soul.
On “All Night Parking” a tinkling piano plays gently over vinyl crackles, but also an R&B groove. There are more electronics on 30 than we’re used to: a vocoder here, a loop there. On “Cry Your Heart Out” her vocal is distorted, smaller somehow, when she invites us to “Cry your heart out/Clean your face/When you’re in doubt/Go at your own pace”. She’s not far from home, but there’s a confidence in her departure from heavy balladry that invokes lightness and wit.
The change of tone helps the album gain momentum after an emotional start. “My Little Love”, a vulnerable track about communicating the complexities of divorce with her nine-year-old, including in spoken recordings, which range from “Mummy’s been having some big feelings lately” to clips of Adele when she is tearful, anxious and hungover, and unsure of how to cope with her loneliness. These are layered over uneasy jazz harmony and a Bossa groove, a strange haze of uncertainty that is grounded by her reassuring vocal (both spoken and sung) but new territory for someone who usually expresses themselves using chords I, IV and V.
“Cry Your Heart Out” picks up into a shuffle. She’s out of liquids to let trickle down her cheeks and launches into rebound territory, with the stomping energy of “Rolling in the Deep” or “Send My Love (to Your New Lover)”. “Can I Get It” is the radio single, light and energetic; it’s a shame that “Oh My God” – to which she will inevitably raise the roof at stadiums across the world, weaving across the stage in bare feet and some sort of monumentally expensive top – veers into electro swing and the uncharacteristically forgettable melody of apres-ski bar fodder.
“I Drink Wine”, the point in the album when she begins to fall back into the soft sofa of melancholy, is the standout, a shuffling six-minute ballad with more reverent organ and crisp piano that is undoubtedly a timeless classic. She is self-effacing and humorous, playing up the world-weary diva (“I used to soak up fun/But now I only soak up wine”) yet lets rip on love and loss in a sort of undeniable way. “How can we both become a version of a person we don’t even like?” she asks, and the world lets out a collective sigh. “I hope I learn to get over myself/Stop trying to be somebody else,” she sings in the chorus, her voice as controlled and raw as ever. It’s difficult to overstate the extent to which this is music for the ages, songs that, whether you like them or not, do not tire or fade, that define not just a generation but an era; and a voice – which is at its most extraordinary on “To Be Loved”, where she rasps in gut-wrenching soprano – that will be remembered as one of the greatest of all time.
But then maybe I’m just in the mood. Adele appears to bare more of herself than ever, her spoken snippets providing insights into her reassuring and aspirational world (both Beverly Hills luxury, and watching TV in “sweats”). And yes, by the end, she’s cried it all out, crossed more post-marriage Ts than surely the tidiest of divorce papers ever could. But in Adele’s church of heartbreak, like any religious institution, selflessness abounds. This is really an album – just as so much expert pop writing is – about us.