Adele: 30 album review – a devastating comeback

Review at a glance

It’s unclear exactly how long Adele and her creative team spent brainstorming her four album covers, which are all photographs of her face in close-up, but perhaps we can read something into the smaller choices within this visual simplicity. On both of the first two, 19 and 21, her eyes are downcast, unassuming, surely not anticipating anything like the blockbusting bedlam to come. On 25, in 2015, she’s looking us straight in the eye, ready – if a little reluctant – for the stadiums, Glastonbury headline slot and endless multiplatinum certifications that she knows this time are inevitable.

Now she’s 33, releasing 30, and her face is side-on, looking off at who knows what. The album is named after the age she was when she married charity boss Simon Konecki. They’re now divorced, sharing care of their nine-year-old son Angelo. In the new music, as well as on the album sleeve, there’s a sense that she doesn’t know what’s next or how to handle it. As she sings, the biggest musician in the world frequently sounds extraordinarily vulnerable. It no longer sounds like she’s making music to achieve towering sales figures. At times, her fans will wonder why someone who has guarded her privacy so fiercely has shared some of these nakedly despairing songs at all.

In one of three interviews she gave to varieties of Vogue in the run-up to this release, she said that Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was “a very big reference”. However, 30 is surely a closer relative of Gaye’s 1978 release Here, My Dear – a stranger, less focused, unhappy recording made to help pay for his divorce from his first wife. Adele’s comeback single, Easy On Me, went straight to number one and scored the biggest week of streams for a song ever, but the classy restraint of that piano ballad is uncharacteristic of the surprising range of sounds and styles elsewhere.

It’s also a mistake to read too much into the pre-release song titles. I Drink Wine, as heard on her US TV special this week, is not a jolly hen do exclamation but a weary exploration of a life going wrong. Five of the 12 songs, including that one, are over six minutes long. She really wallows in the emotions on display.

She opens with Strangers by Nature, a collaboration with Swedish soundtrack composer Ludwig Göransson that mixes a churchy electric organ with vintage strings straight out of a Fifties musical. It’s an unexpected start for an album with such gigantic expectations. “All right then, I’m ready,” she says as it fades, possibly taking a breath to brace herself for what she’s about to sing.

After the single comes possibly the saddest one of all: My Little Love is a smouldering soul song addressed to her son, featuring voice clips from both of them as she attempts to explain to him why she has chosen to upend the security of his world. She admits: “I feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing.” It is heartbreaking. Later, on Hold On, made with Michael Kiwanuka’s producer Inflo, there’s a gospel choir of her friends convincing her to hang in there while she sings: “Right now I truly hate being me.”

There are poppier songs too, mostly made with her regular co-writer Greg Kurstin. There’s a reggae feel to Cry Your Heart Out. On the relatively danceable Oh My God and over the jazzy piano and beats of All Night Parking she sounds loved up with someone new. Can I Get It is the lone collaboration with Max Martin and Shellback, who also made Send My Love (To Your New Lover) on 25, and is less successful. It sounds like a newly free divorcee trying a bit too hard to convince herself she’s having fun, and also too much like Ed Sheeran.

One song from the end, things take another heavy turn. To Be Loved, written with Tobias Jesso Jr, is an epic torch song that swells to an extraordinary climax. As she repeats “Let it be known that I tried,” her immense voice loses any moderation, almost breaking with the strain. It feels like the chest-beating, grandstanding speech at the end of a movie.

“Mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings,” she told her son earlier on. Mummy isn’t the only one who’ll need a lie down after being thoroughly wrung out by this devastating comeback.

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