Never replicated and always striking, Adele’s music has consistently been in a league of its own, with each new album the singer releases being accompanied by a strong sense of sureness and poise. But what happens when Adele’s entire world capsizes and leaves her at an emotional low, that assurance she once had in herself meeting its heartbreaking match? The result is the singer’s most brutally honest, saddest yet most dynamic record to date.
“30,” Adele’s fourth studio album and follow-up to her diamond-certified 2015 tour de force “25,” largely chronicles Adele’s unintentionally-public divorce from her husband of two years Simon Konecki and all that followed—sadness, anger, guilt, confusion, self-discovery and the more-than-occasional glass of wine.
“I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart / For all of my lovers in the present and in the dark,” Adele sings on the quiet, Judy Garland-inspired album opener “Strangers By Nature.” Backed by stunning, dreamlike strings courtesy of co-writer and producer Ludwig Göransson, the track acts as a sort of prologue to the story told on “30,” with Adele deciding that she’s ready to walk us through some of her most intimate moments from the past few years after a brief moment of reflection.
Immediately following “Strangers By Nature” is “Easy On Me,” the album’s captivating lead single. The previously released track marked a grand return for Adele following a 6-year-hiatus. It’s an already-classic Adele ballad, finding the singer in her most vulnerable state yet and asking for understanding from her son and ex-husband as her marriage comes to an end.
Adele has made it clear that much of “30” was made to better explain her divorce to her son Angelo when she couldn’t necessarily find the words. How might one tell their child that love isn’t always a fairy tale? On “My Little Love,” Adele communicates her feelings to Angelo directly. “I wanted you to have everything I never had / I’m so sorry if what I’ve done makes you feel sad,” she sings to her son. The melancholic track evokes Marvin Gaye and features sentimental voice notes between Adele and her son. “Mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings recently,” she says to her son. “My Little Love” tugs at your heartstrings, and making it through the track’s six-and-a-half-minute runtime without feeling Adele’s pain proves challenging.
Elsewhere on the record, Adele unexpectedly trades the pain of lost love for danceable energy, sass and charisma. Back-to-back tracks “Oh My God” and “Can I Get It” sit smack in the middle of “30” and are two sides of the same coin, oozing with confidence. The standout “Oh My God” sees Adele fresh on the dating scene following her divorce. “I know that it’s wrong / But I want to have fun,” Adele sings on the Greg Kurstin-produced track just before an explosive pop chorus that’s chock-full of heavy bass and claps. There’s some uncertainty that comes with dipping your toes back in the water, but Adele isn’t afraid to get her feet wet. “Can I Get It” is a pop-rock pick-me-up (serious “Dani California” vibes here) that expands upon the free, flirty feelings in the preceding track with the help of industry wizards Max Martin and Shellback. Both are surefire hits and welcomed surprises on “30.”
For Adele, creating “30” was therapy following her divorce. That sense of healing carries over into the record and can be felt in tracks like the soulful, authentic “I Drink Wine” and the gospel-like “Hold On.” The former is easily one of “30”’s best, describing Adele’s wine-laced realization that mending a broken heart doesn’t come without its trials and tribulations, like learning to not take for granted the ones who love you the most. “I hope I learn to get over myself / Stop tryin’ to be somebody else,” Adele sings in the chorus of the Elton John-esque track.
The singer recently revealed to Rolling Stone that “I Drink Wine” was originally 15 minutes long but was cut down to six minutes following label feedback.
The biggest emotional blow on “30” is “To Be Loved”—the album’s penultimate and best track—a near-7-minute gut-wrenching ballad that features only Adele’s vocals and a piano. Here, Adele grieves the loss of her marriage more intensely than anywhere else on the album, accepting that she’ll feel the same sorrow forever if she doesn’t put the loss behind her (“I’ll never learn if I never leap / I’ll always yearn if I never speak”). The singer teamed up with her “When We Were Young” collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr. to co-write and produce “To Be Loved,” and the two once again created a masterpiece. The track houses Adele’s most powerful lyrics to date, and Jesso Jr.’s simple piano work allows what is likely the singer’s best vocal performance of her career to shine. In an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, Adele swore off singing “To Be Loved” live completely, and noted that she has to leave the room any time it’s being played.
Sonically, “30” is a movie, not just because of the album’s sweeping, cinematic production, but also in the way Adele decides to structure and tell her story. If “To Be Loved” is the climax of this narrative, where Adele overcomes her strongest heartbreak yet, then album closer “Love Is A Game” plays as the credits roll. The final track is a swelling, old-school epic reminiscent of Amy Winehouse, bursting at the seams with magic and warmth.
Calling “30” a “divorce album” wouldn’t really be a lie, but you’d be doing the record a disservice if you didn’t dig a little deeper. “30” is Adele’s best yet, teeming with a myriad of emotions (like scorn, on the empowering “Woman Like Me” or the butterflies that come with new love on the interlude “All Night Parking”). The album is a sophisticated and timeless portrait of a woman who’s reached her fullest potential as an artist in the midst of heartbreak and anxiety, and it’s truly a feast for the ears.