Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.
6 long years ago, when Adele released her last studio effort 25, it was clear that she had pop comeback on her mind. It had only been 4 years since her previous record, the average gap between modern pop albums, but for her fans—a.k.a. the entire living world—it had felt like an eternity. Because her second studio album, 2011’s 21, was not just a record, it was a phenomenon, a revolution. Her interpersonal lyrics and immense mezzo-soprano vocal range was enough to create cross-generational appeal to listeners both young and old, and it catapulted Adele to unimaginable fame and recognition.
With 25, she combined her R&B and soul sensibilities with more mainstream pop properties to further extend her cultural revolution with the unforgettable “Hello” and “Water Under the Bridge.” To listen to both 21 and 25 now is to recall a time that was far less socio-politically divided, when the power of one singer’s talent was enough to put aside our personal differences and listen to each other. But with the arrival of her long-awaited fourth studio album 30, Adele has grown and so have we. Her new music is far more personal in a way that separates her experiences enough from the public conscious to provide some much needed distance between herself and her fanbase.
“I always say that 21 doesn’t belong to me anymore. Everyone else took it into their hearts so much. I’m not letting go of this one,” Adele said of 30 in a Vogue cover interview in October. “This is my album. I want to share myself with everyone, but I don’t think I’ll ever let this one go.” That proclamation is the best way to summarize the singer’s new album, in that it sounds like a more authentically emotionally distraught version of Adele, if you will. When she first announced the album’s release along with its lead single “Easy On Me,” she confirmed that her upcoming record would be her most personal yet. For pop singers who have perhaps made their names on more up-tempo club bangers, the announcement of their most personal release yet might come a bit more out of left field.
But all of Adele’s work until now felt enormously personal, didn’t it? Every lyric and note that every fan has carved into a place in their hearts was for a reason, because of their very personal nature. The difference now is that Adele has delivered something so uniquely personal, something so very belonging to her, that it can only lend itself to others’ experiences to a certain extent. This one is hers, from start to finish, and it’s a welcome journey for those willing to take the ride. As a result, it does, however, sound like more of a personal therapy session put to music rather than album for everyone’s ears.
“Mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings recently,” she declares to her son on “My Little Love,” addressing the emotional homework the singer was doing following her divorce that her son struggled to understand. As Adele pointed out, her “Year of Anxiety” following her separation took place pre-pandemic, and she found it interesting to then watch her friends go through similar epiphanies during solitude the following year. But as far as a musical album goes, 30 almost excels too much at championing the experiences of only Adele, to the point where some tracks, such as “Woman Like Me” or “Hold On,” come across as… dare I say… rich white lady problems. (For example, the singer was told that the original 15-minute version of “I Drink Wine” would just not make it onto the radio.)
It would have been interesting if we had received 30 before COVID-19 changed our planet and our perceptions forever, because it has since been hard to judge any and all pieces of art without asking oneself, “Where does this rank?” Again, it’s been 6 years since we last heard a new Adele album. She clearly isn’t an artist who wants to be going into studios and cranking out records every 3 or 4 years like most in the pop music genre, and that’s her prerogative, given her level of success. “It really helped me, this album,” she told Apple Music. “I really think that some of the songs on this album could really help people, really change people’s lives.”
But it’s doubtful that even Adele could make everything all better again as it felt like she once could, because we have changed and so has she. It’s not her job to be using her talent to heal a broken world, as if it ever was to begin with. It’s her job to make music however she sees fit. And in some strange way, that’s what makes 30 the most compelling. “I just wanted to remind [everyone] that you don’t need to be in everyone’s faces all the time,” she said. “And also, you can really write from your stomach, if you want.”
Jeffrey’s favorites from 30: “Strangers By Nature,” “Easy On Me,” “Cry Your Heart Out,” “Oh My God,” “I Drink Wine,” and “To Be Loved”