You do wonder what would happen to Adele’s award-laden career if her life offstage was always full of happiness. Where would she find her emotional fuel?
Keeping lyrics relatable is an issue that bedevils many stars as their lives become more glamorous, but less familiar to the fans who loved their earlier, earthier records; back when they were simply the girl or boy next door.
Thankfully, Adele will always have a heartbreak; or so it seems. It’s the great universal theme, whether as the soundtrack of a post-break-up slumber party or a farewell TV montage to a beloved sporting icon. Her records are accompanying tracks for our tears.
“I'm my own worst enemy,” she sings, in the gospel-infused Hold On, arguably the highlight of her new album. “Right now I truly hate being me.”
Such sentiments hardly just spring from nowhere, so the question is: would the London-born singer have even made a new record, if she hadn’t endured a painful divorce two years ago, when she split from husband Simon Konecki?
If the split was the reason for her new opus, it would explain the slightly longer gap between albums this time, six years since the much less fraught - but still far from joyful - 25. That record now feels rather forgettable compared to the emotional power on her new record. You sense that the singer's creative batteries were recharged with every angry word.
For 30, Adele takes the confessional approach to a raw new level by including voice notes, a slightly unsettling trend inspired by artists like Tyler, the Creator. “Mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings lately,” she tells son Angelo on My Little Love, which may seem an odd thing to send out into the world, but these unsung vignettes do give the record a distinctive feel.
Those therapeutic interludes aside, her fourth album is full-on fan service, with great wailing globules of tear-stained soul in places, plus some novel musical departures to keep the critics onside, now that she has swapped indie label XL Recordings for her own major-backed imprint, Melted Stone.
Not that 30 strays far from the old blueprint; blue being the operative word. The most upbeat track is probably Cry Your Heart Out, which, as the title suggests, is not exactly a party-starter. ‘‘When will I begin to feel like me again?” she sings, “my skin’s paper thin.”
Whoop! Musically, though, that track boasts an evocative Lauryn Hill vibe, part of a nicely 90s-leaning double-whammy, alongside the Erykah Badu-like neo-soul of My Little Love.
Speaking of classic sounds, the album is bookended by two almost seasonal, string-laden affairs that you could imagine being sung on a snowy stage in an Adele Christmas special. But the tone remains intact. “Heartache, it’s inevitable,” she croons in Love is a Game. You can say that again.
The record drifts a little when Adele wanders away from the confessional into modern production-line pop. Oh My God and Can I Get It both build promisingly - “Pave me a path to follow,” she begins on the latter, harking back to early hit Chasing Pavements - but both lack a Rolling in the Deep-quality chorus, sadly.
There’s a danger that the album could descend into cossetted celebrity whining at this midway point. “We’re in love with the world but the world just wants to bring us down,” sings the woman whose whole career is famously based on selling musical misery. “Everybody wants something from me.”
What everybody actually wants is the authentic personality who charmed the world a decade ago, and thankfully that unique voice soon asserts itself, with a little expert help.
Adele’s romantic liaisons may all end up as torch-song fodder but her professional relationships produce much more harmonious results. There are some pretty foolproof collaborators involved with 30 , perhaps most interestingly is Ludwig Goransson, the Swedish composer best known for soundtracking the movies Black Panther and Tenet, while also co-creating much of Childish Gambino’s output. This mix of musical genres could be unwieldy, but there’s a soulful through line that keeps things vibrantly on track.
The album swings back towards more interesting territory with a cameo from the late, great Erroll Garner, adding posthumous piano to the one solid love song here, All Night Parking, where Adele sings the old-school blues. Then producer Inflo (Michael Kiwanuka and Little Simz) takes over, and the second half features some of the singer’s strongest material. Women Like Me is particularly punchy, a sort of reverse Someone Like You, as the ex-husband gets a good talking-to.
“Complacency is the worse trait to have, are you crazy?” she sings. “It is so sad, a man like you, could be so lazy.” Then, the knockout blow. "Now some other man will get the love I have for you". Ouch.
The aforementioned Hold On is 30’s whole emotional journey encapsulated in one song, from despair to a door-kicking drum beat, then a cathartic choir. “Just be patient,” she sings, late on. It could be a Covid-era anthem.
The real statement here though is To Be Loved, the almost-showstopper (there’s still the Christmassy closer Love is a Game to finish things off, in feel-good fashion). This is Adele saying, "my life may be different now, but the voice is still strong." It is quite a performance, hitting almost guttural emotional depths towards the end of the track.
Many artists might have preferred a more polished take there, but 30 is not about silky perfection; it’s mascara-stained tissues and issues. Admittedly this is also the song a lot of amateur singers are going to absolutely ruin at karaoke nights over the next couple of years, so enjoy it while you can.
Amid the remarkable vocal work in To Be Loved, a quieter line resonates: “Looking back, I don’t regret a thing,” she sings. Which is understandable, as those rollercoaster years also yielded this, her most satisfying album so far.
That work/life balance is clearly quite a conundrum, though, for all concerned. When things go wrong, those relationship troubles eventually end up all over the radio, but long-term contentment might also be the worst thing for this remarkable career. Creative kryptonite. Adele could never really have it all.