Adele Adkins doesn’t just write songs; she writes anthems. Over the course of her 15-year career, she’s become the patron saint of heartache in mainstream music, penning tear-jerking songs about the woes of love. Dating back to her debut album, 2008’s 19, the singer has filled airwaves and late-night headphones with tracks recounting failed love, longing, and the often fraught depths of devotion found in tempestuous relationships.
But Adele has never been as soul-stirring, vulnerable, or captivating as she is on 30. In the six years since her monstrously successful third record, 25, she’s been busy raising a son, as well as marrying—then divorcing—her now ex-husband. After all of this (or, as legions of her fans have argued in recent months, maybe because of this), she’s returned to share the long journey she’s been on.
30 opens with the mournful “Strangers By Nature,” a lulling, foreboding song in which views her heart as a cemetery filled with now deceased loves. It immediately showcases how her sound has expanded, with the arrangements taking on a new, more cinematic quality. (Perhaps she was eager to revisit the sonic palette of “Skyfall.”) Adele’s voice comes out delicately, as strings softly hum in the background. Twinkling synths give way to a swelling, dark chorus, the mood riddled with grief as she pays respects to those left behind.
Prior to 30’s release, Adele said her fourth album would help to explain her divorce to her 9-year-old son, Angelo. This dedication comes most plainly in “My Little Love,” a heady, bass-forward song about the desire to be strong in front of her son even when she’s crumbling. Adele refers to herself in the third-person as “mama,” while singing directly to him, and the track includes snippets of conversation between Adele and her son, telling him how she’s “been carrying a lot of emotions lately.” There’s a push and pull in the lyrics—of a mother needing her son for support while feeling guilty about wearing these emotions on her sleeve for him to see. The song’s outro almost plays like a confessional: Discussing feelings of loneliness, her voice breaks, and sobs burst out.
The tears dry soon, however. “Cry Your Heart Out,” a spunky, jazzy offering reminiscent of ’60s girl groups, employs bongos, clapping, and spirited backup vocals to celebrate taking time for yourself and giving yourself love. Singing about feeling devoid of emotion, fragile, and outright scared, she instructs, “All love is devout, no feeling is a waste, but give it to yourself now,” a reminder that in the fallout of a relationship, self-love remains crucial. Her voice rises and falls in runs over the swinging beat, guiding listeners into a more energized portion of the album.
“Oh My God” and “Can I Get It” are the most pop-oriented and straightforward pairing on the album, with the incorporation of high-pitched synths and—dear god—whistling, a hollow carry-over from 2010s radio pop. The two songs provide the most uptempo section, both driven by steady hand claps. The former uses layered vocals to toast the pursuit of love in trying times, while the latter harnesses a sensuality not often heard in Adele’s work, as she moans during the chorus, asking if she can get someone’s love, come hell or high water. Unfortunately, neither cut is particularly interesting—exceptions to the otherwise excellent material on the album.
While the expansion of her sound really begins to pay off with “I Drink Wine”— an organ leads the way as she lets her vocals run wild, building to a final chorus of cathartic release—it’s with “All Night Parking (With Erroll Garner) Interlude” where 30 reaches new heights. In the song, Adele steps away from pop structures and delves into a richer sound infused with gospel, jazz, and soul. This R&B number lets her get back in touch with her tenderness: Whimsical and dreamy, she sings about an infatuation, confessing to impetuous desire as the late Garner’s piano lines give new life to the music—outstripping the more generic piano melodies found on 25, for example—and reaches for something deeper, rooted in complex desire.
Adele grapples with grief and loneliness many times throughout 30, but anger only arises on “Woman Like Me,” in which she drags a certain man through the filth for not appreciating her and reciprocating her efforts in their relationship. Her vocals falling low over a finger-plucked guitar melody, she sings fiercely of giving her all and receiving nothing in return, ending with a demand for consistency (as that’s what will keep a “woman like her”).
“Hold On” serves as Adele’s gospel, her heavenly vocals ringing out like a beautifully secular hymn. Lyrics about feeling lost, tired, and weary give way to a promise that things will get better, and love will return. Unlike the deep, anger-tinged vocals of “Woman Like Me,” Adele’s voice shimmers in high registers in “Hold On,” producing some truly chill-inducing moments. What starts with just her and the piano opens up to a choir and a full band arrangement: Riding the wave of the moving bridge, strings enter and follow Adele’s lead as she sings of patience and graciousness, preaching the need to just hold on—something her friends tell her time and time again, which may be why the choir is credited as “Adele’s crazy friends” in the liner notes.
After bolstering herself with the voices of friends, “To Be Loved” finds Adele all on her own. With just the backup of a simple, measured piano line, “To Be Loved” is a wrenching confessional that finds the singer at the absolute top of her game. With poetic lyricism, she sings of a willingness to make the sacrifice needed for love, vocals echoing as if she’s singing on an empty stage. As her voice cracks during the bridge, she reaches her limits, resulting in a raw, powerhouse performance. Upon its finish, a listener could be forgiven for having the impulse to stand and erupt into applause.
Inspired by the films of Audrey Hepburn, the final track, “Love Is A Game,” is pure romance, swirling with imagery of old movies. The grandiose strings take center stage throughout, swooning behind Adele’s vocals. Evoking classic jazz singers like Billie Holiday or Etta James, Adele pushes the limits of her range as she sings about the pain she’s endured and the “foolish game” of pursuing love in this life. It’s dramatic, triumphantly rising into a glorious and joyous denouement, like the perfect end to a film.
Although the potency of 30 diminishes with “Oh My God” and “Can I Get It,” the final three songs are so raw, moving, and perfectly executed that the two lesser tracks become mere blips in the grandeur of the rest of the album. While there are no bellowing, radio-friendly bops like “Hello” or “Rolling In The Deep,” she has tapped into something more exciting.
In the final moments of “Love Is A Game,” Adele shouts she’ll “do it all again.” Even though love is “a game for fools to play,” she considers herself foolish in this way—willingly offering herself up as a sacrifice once more when the time is right, and in the process, breaking out of her mold to deliver the richest and most musically adventurous album of her career.