Six years after her last album, we finally heard from one of the music industry’s titans, a woman whose personal struggles have stopped the world every half a decade. It’s safe to say that many of us grew up with Adele — I certainly have. As Adele came into her own as an artist in 2011 with 21, we were coming into our own as young people whose music was defined by the radio and their parents. As she fell in love in 2015 with 25, we became more self-assured, coming to terms with the world around us.
Now, as we come to define ourselves in our transition to adulthood, Adele is developing in synchronicity, reforming her musical identity while grappling with the turbulence of emotion following a devastating divorce. On 30, we meet Adele at her creative best, allowing the music of older generations to coalesce with her signature sound, accompanied by an unprecedented use of electronics.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the album’s opener, “Strangers by Nature,” in which her first lines, “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart,” accompany a spare electric piano that gives way to a cascade of swirling strings. We are introduced to a redefined Adele, one who is unafraid of straying from the pop ballad formula to do exactly what she wants. Over the course of the album, she revisits the age of ‘30s Hollywood, samples ‘50s jazz, conjures the unabashed purity of Motown and recaptures the ingenuity of ‘70s singer-songwriters. Especially compelling is her evident inspiration from modern R&B, most notably on “All Night Long” and “Woman Like Me.”
As the album’s first three tracks close with the reflective “My Little Love,” there is a sense that Adele does not feel like giving us another 21 or 25. Rather, she wants this album to serve as an hour of rumination for her listener. She isn’t pulling out any stops to impress with any vocal acrobatics or belting just to belt. More than anything, she wants us to understand her situation, as heavy as it may be.
The heartbreaking final voice memo of “My Little Love” marks a turning point in 30. In the next three tracks, we see Adele relentlessly trying, going out to make herself feel more alive. This makes for a thrilling and almost jarring listen musically, as she experiments with electronics like never before. She also constantly toys with her supporting vocals, such as in the electronic pitch manipulations in “Cry Your Heart Out.” While the music is upbeat, thanks to the work of past collaborators Greg Kurstin, Max Martin and Shellback, lines like “I know that it’s wrong / but I want to have fun” on the album highlight “Oh My God” allude to the idea that maybe we’re listening to someone convincing themselves that they’re enjoying reentering the dating world.
“I Drink Wine,” another personal favorite, illustrates her meeting herself in the middle, acknowledging her bad habits and regrets accompanied by an uplifting sound similar to the music of Elton John. We’re reminded that she is still growing and learning: “I hope I learn to get over myself / Stop tryin’ to be somebody else.” The person she became on the past three tracks fades into the artist we know and love trying to embrace her missteps.
The album’s closing three tracks make for Adele’s best songwriting to date. Each track caps off at around six minutes, but flies by, presenting most of the emotional weight of the album in eighteen minutes. “Hold On” and “Love Is A Game,” two collaborations with Inflo, the producer behind neo soul collective SAULT, flawlessly positions the artist in the world of Motown, reinforcing the echoes of music past over the course of the album. On both tracks, Adele is the seeker of her own advice, sought through discovering herself over the past few years. We are reminded that love is a game, but it’s a game that we all yearn to play.
“To Be Loved” — undoubtedly her best song — is a delicate cyclone, one that the singer has only been able to sing three times and vowed she’d never perform live. It beautifully encapsulates what makes the artist the profound vocalist and songwriter she is. Penned with longtime collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr., “To Be Loved” is spare, raw and penetrative. It’s a stunning testament to Adele’s power as a songwriter in capturing the universality of emotion. We all long to have others know that we’re trying, to be silently forgiven and to forgive ourselves for our regrets, and, as Adele reminds us on 30, to be loved as the works-in-progress we are.
PJ Brown is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].