Photo Credit: Simon Emmett
For her comeback single – which was preceded by a half-a-decade absence – Adele Adkins chose “Easy On Me”; by all accounts, a fairly conventional ballad. It’s buoyed by little more than an understated piano arrangement and Adele’s commanding voice; whose powerhouse capabilities are unleashed in the chorus, as she cries “go easy-y-y-y on me, baby.” You’ve heard it, inevitably, countless times by now.
The single was, in one word, “safe”; something Adele seemed not just aware of, but actively embraced: “It’s very me” she exclaimed in one interview, further adding that she thought after such a long absence people would want something familiar from her. Indeed, as Guardian critic, Alexis Petridis opined, “Easy on Me” felt less like a comeback and more like “an act of global reassurance.”
Adele was quick to emphasize though that 30 – far from being a predictable fourth full-length project – actually sees her leaving her traditional wheelhouse considerably; incorporating newfound jazz and electronic influences. Now, 30 has finally arrived and it is indeed Adele’s most experimental project to date (though bear in mind that this is by the standard of the singer’s normally pretty predictable previous material. These songs are still unmistakable in their quintessential Adele-ness).
It’s exciting and admirable to see Adele take new risks, especially as she easily could’ve replicated the formula of 21 and 25 to achieve similar record-breaking success once again. Unfortunately, Adele’s newfound risk-taking doesn’t always work in her favor. “My Little Love” – addressed to her 9-year-old son – sees her incorporate voice notes into her music for the first time; a practice she says was inspired by the likes of rappers Tyler, The Creator, and Skepta. Voice notes excluded, the song is a moving gem; it’s plain-spoken and almost saccharine lyricism made appropriate by who it is addressed to. “My little love // I see your eyes widen like an ocean // When you look at me so full of my emotions” she sings, capturing a mother’s guilt with faultless precision.
The voice notes, however, bring her son Angelo directly into the narrative for the first time: “I feel like you don’t love me”, he is heard telling Adele – a surely heartbreaking sentiment for the mother-of-one to hear. “Do you like me?” he then asks, more directly and disarmingly, before Adele answers coolly but lovingly, “You know mummy doesn’t like anyone else like I like you, right?” The snippet makes clear Adele’s utter love and devotion towards her son, down to the soft, comforting tone she takes on with every word addressed towards him.
Yet, there’s something uncomfortably intimate, even unintentionally exploitative, about this addition; elevating a 9-year-old’s moment of emotional vulnerability to a worldwide stage in service of creating a smash hit. The social media age has led millions to publicly share moments of intimacy they never would have otherwise – especially when it involves one’s own children. This serves as yet another reminder of the moral uncertainty of this practice; especially when the intended audience is as large as it is here. One has to wonder how Angelo – who, at 9-years-old, surely can’t fully comprehend the gravity of his words spoken here, nor, how many people will hear them – will, in later years, come to feel about this being his first proper introduction to the general public.
Many of Adele’s new risks however flounder for more conventional, and less morally charged reasons. “Cry Your Heart Out” sees Adele’s voice undergo heavy electronic distortion; taking away its raw, unvarnished power that typically commands her best songs. Meanwhile, interlude “All Time Parking” infuses jazz in an apparent attempt to recreate the timeless energy of, say, Carole King’s Tapestry, but instead reads as a pale imitation; a frustratingly tentative gesture at reinvention from a usually definitive artist. 30’s boldest sonic departure comes in the form of “Can I Get It”, buoyed by jangly guitar arrangements that evoke Sam Fender and Celebrity Skin-era Hole. “Let me just come and get it,” Adele sings with an implied wink before the chorus devolves into whistle-pop. The song hardly offers the strongest showcase of Adele’s phenomenal talents, yet it offers a welcome change of pace as we head into the album’s second half.
In the album’s final leg, Adele opts for the long and slow; with all of the final three tracks being barebones piano ballads that clock in at over six minutes each. They lack the anthemic nature of her most defining hits like “Rolling in The Deep”, “Hello” and “Someone Like You”. The understated nature of these songs also puts the focus firmly on Adele’s lyricism. Adele has always had a penchant for indulging the cliched but never has it felt this overt before. 30 is chockablock with references to roads less traveled, “rides” she wants to “get off” and feeling “like a ghost.”
Adele’s music is best at its biggest and most melodramatic. She lacks the lyrical precision of a Phoebe Bridgers – who can pierce the soul with a single line – and as result stumbles when the spotlight is on her words. Sonically, meanwhile, these songs are simply too one-note to remain consistently compelling. It’s hard not to compare the longest songs here to Taylor Swift’s recent 10-minute version of “All Too Well”; that song expertly utilized light and shade to remain captivating throughout. By the time it was over, you couldn’t believe it had lasted a full ten minutes. In contrast, you feel every second of songs like “To Be Loved”.
With all of these criticisms, I should note that 30 isn’t a bad album per se, just an uneven one. While not uniformly commanding in the ways 21 and 25 were, it contains moments of magic that validate the unrivaled megastar status Adele has gained in the course of a decade. “I Drink Wine” is 30’s shimmering highlight; originally 15 minutes in length, but cut down to just 6 for the album, there’s a sense the song has undergone a trimming of the fat process that the rest of 30 could’ve done with. Light synthesizers, organs, and strings give the song momentum and drive without taking away from its authenticity. While lyrically, the song finds Adele in her most affecting mode: blunt, confessional, and straightforward. “When I was a child, every single thing could blow my mind // Soaking it all up for fun, but now I only soak up wine” she sings, drawing a stark contrast between the wide-eyed innocence of youth and the need as an adult to use alcohol to blunt the harsh realities of the world. In this form, Adele is utterly captivating; validating every single record she’s broken. 30 may not contain enough of these moments, but it does – at the very least – offer a fascinating insight into the inner turmoil of the world’s biggest musician – and her attempts at boundary-breaking, it should be underscored, are commendable, even if not always sure-footed.