30 is a well-constructed and emotionally insightful album, but also one often undermined by its classical roteness and confused attempts at persona reshaping.
Adele exists in a peculiar space, an undeniably massive superstar with a global audience, and yet she appears isolated from the broader culture, her stylings and proclivities placing her outside what’s considered cool in contemporary music for well over a decade now. This was perhaps less true in 2008 when debut album 19 launched her career, but here in 2021, Adele is more or less the only artist of her sort able to work at such pop heights, boasting four projects worth of soul-inflected, theatrical balladry largely detached from broader industry trends. Indeed, “old-fashioned” is the label they tend to stick Adele with, one the singer-songwriter seems to bristle at even as she’s held fast to her particular lane, but despite an intriguing pre-release joke about venturing into drum-and-bass this time around, latest album 30 doesn’t attempt to upset what’s worked, a natural progression that doesn’t necessarily equate to interesting growth.
This new one comes out six years after her previous, 2015’s 25, and like that album, 30 serves as a loose chronicle of that year in her life, charting Adele’s emotional reckoning with her son, former husband, and herself in the midst of the dissolution of their 10-year relationship. Expressed in a linear arc, 30 opens on the soft, jazzy, Judy Garland-inspired (technically Judy-inspired) “Strangers by Nature,” a track balancing warm production and vocal delivery with stark, sad lyrical content, the first lines we hear being “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart.” Produced by Childish Gambino collaborator Ludwig Göransson, “Strangers by Nature” is one 30’s stand outs and sets the standard of production quality high early on with robust instrumentation and deft vocal mixing. It’s a standard the album is able to maintain for the duration of its 58-minute runtime and perhaps 30’s most satisfying element — so rare to see a modern-day Top 40 mainstay flex her budget this hard. Subsequent track and big single “Easy on Me” continues to impress in this way, setting the stage for Adele to really work her vocal range, belting frank, self-critical sentiment (“Go easy on me, baby / I was still a child”) over determined piano melody to (now-expected) bold effect.
In this way, 30 is at its best when it goes for classic, big Adele moments, updating and cleaning up what’s worked previously. This comes through on closing tracks “To Be Loved” (marking the return of wayward songwriter/producer Tobias Jesso Jr.) and “Love is a Game” as well, but 30’s core isn’t so strong, consisting of increasingly dubious formula switch-ups like cringey acoustic jam “Woman Like Me” and the twangy, faux provocative 2000s-core “Can I Get It” (courtesy of Max Martin and Shellback). Elsewhere, Adele tries out voicemail samples on “My Little Love” (in a nod to Tyler, the Creator/Skepta apparently) to not so great effect, forcing an intimacy more organically achieved in her vocal performance. What it all adds up to is an appreciably well-constructed album with occasionally searing emotional insight, often undermined by a classical roteness and confused attempts at persona reshaping.
Published as part of Album Roundup — November 2021 | Part 2.