ALBUM REVIEW: Adele, 30
Some artists treat their albums as a simple business transaction. Their fanbase is built-in and depending on how large their streaming numbers are, they will often find it more beneficial to play it broad. Albums have gotten incrementally longer by the year, with Kanye West’s DONDA (Deluxe) containing two-plus hours of material. The chance that someone will passively bump the record on shuffle in their sleep or at a party is high, so why not keep them on your album instead of someone else’s? Considering all this, Adele’s career is one of the most interesting case studies in modern pop culture. She has been properly releasing music for 13 years, and is only on her fourth record. She has seen Katy Perrys, Ed Sheerans and Lil Nas Xs come for her throne and has never been in danger of losing it even once. From my research and personal experience, there are three aspects of Adele’s art that has made her such an institution ever since “Rolling In The Deep” dropped in 2011. The first, and most obvious is that she has one of the greatest voices in modern music. She sounds classically trained (although she is mostly self-taught) and her singing is dynamic -- able to keep solemn lows and fiery highs at the same level of intensity. Whether the song is bad (“Oh My God”) or groundbreaking (“To Be Loved”), I can never say that she is off-key or unable to hit any note, she is technically sound and her melodies are sweet.
Listening to her first album in 6 years, called 30, feels like another helping of “I am still #1” in ways that are both highly entertaining and terrifying. The latter brings me to the second aspect of her art that is probably the most important, and that is her agreeability. While her singing is top notch, her songwriting is not. On this album especially, I think I remember hearing the words “heart” and “love” about 100 times each. Her metaphors, as on the Dirty Projectors clone “Cry Your Heart Out”, are bare bones most of the time, “I created the storm, it's only fair I have sit in it’s rain”. On an emotional level, when she wants you to feel sad, she’ll just directly reference being sad and crying. This is Adele’s biggest weakness, but the most incredible thing about her is that she wears it as a crown. The more general she can be with wording, the shinier the gold and gems get. The moods she creates are soulful enough for deep headphone listening or for more lively settings, but are even-keeled and sterile, perfect for your customer service hold music or Walgreens. Her music is every fucking where, and she doesn’t even have to stream troll, remix or re-record to get her to the top of the charts. The spot is open for her whenever she wants to make more arguable music, how can anyone say “Adele is bad” if it’s playing everywhere?
The third aspect is the one I respect the most. There’s many good singers, and many artists that know how and when to drop, but there’s only one Adele. Her ability to always have consistently good singles and standout tracks is unparalleled by any of her contemporaries. The worst offender, of course, is Ed Sheeran. He first came on the scene with singles that were passable like “A Team” and “Sing”, but now what do we have? Horny EDM like “Bad Habits? Taylor Swift and Drake, as massive as they are, release so rapidly that they often put out weak teaser tracks like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “Way 2 Sexy” respectively. From “Chasing Pavements” to “Rumor Has It” to “Skyfall” to “Hello”, Adele always has direct hits with each era. That’s a skill that sets her apart and continues to net her new fans. She is careful with which song we will all definitely hear for the rest of eternity, “Easy On Me” was a great choice. It sets the tone for the themes of divorce that the album attempts to explore. While the instrumental is deeply suppressed, Adele’s vocals are as strong as ever. “Go easy on me, baby/I was still a child/Didn’t have the chance to/Feel the world around me” is just a no-brainer in the best way possible. When I say all of this, I am speaking as if I’m doing a business transaction. As someone that has the power to force Spotify to remove the shuffle button from the top of albums, Adele clearly has a lot of money and influence. At the end of the day, she gained fame and fortune ignoring oddball sensibilities that would appeal to a website called “AntiArt”. The advice I would give her would make her fall off. Even so I have my own issues with 30.
We are not the Grammys or Rolling Stone, and by that I mean we do not give a fuck about streams, chart positions or what “the kids think” about music. We are not going to say “Old Town Road” belongs in a list of the greatest songs of all time just because it’s the most widely proliferated. Similarly, I must say that in album form, more of Adele’s weaknesses are shown and there is no redemption for them. In addition to the songwriting flaws I mentioned earlier, her approach of casting a wide net over all popular music from the last five years yields some outdated production spots. The acoustic strumming and quirky percussion on “Can I Get It” reeks of that faux-indie X Ambassadors/Lumineers sound that was so popular years ago. In addition to that, the whistling just solidifies this song as a future Kia commercial soundtrack. “Oh My God” has these squelching background vocals that are a dead-ringer for a typical Jason Derulo “jam”. This song is also plagued by that faux-indie sound that always includes stomp-claps for some reason. Other songs just sound like a track that could have easily been on 25, like “I Drink Wine” or “Hold On”. That’s not to say that every song points to a lack of progression, because that’s downright false. Just most of them.
“Strangers By Nature” feels like a logical forwarding of that classic Adele sound. There are sharp melodies and richer, spacier beat work that feels futuristic in a way. “All Night Parking” mixes vintage piano sounds with modern hip-hop drums, creating this sexy atmosphere that feels like Kali Uchis or Jhene Aiko. This is a direction that I wish she completely leaned into instead of just hinting at. “Woman Like Me” trades the pianos in for guitars in a way that feels intriguing instead of pandering, and on top of that, the core of the record is a tragic and specific heartbreak story. While many of these songs hint at a love torn apart, this is one of the rare tracks that addresses it head on. Just like on Billie Elish’s “Lost Cause”, Adele is skewering her ex-husband over some calm adult contemporary/trip-hop that perfectly fits the mood. “To Be Loved” is the real winner of this record though, and will be featured in our 100 Best Songs of 2021. At a towering six and a half minutes, Adele is given ample space to find her way into our hearts. She starts off slowly over some spare keys, singing solemnly about “filling rooms with all her hopes and fears”. Once she gets to the chorus, this track really takes off. She is crushing high notes but you can still hear just how upset she is, and by the second chorus, that aspect intensifies. I cried bro, I’m not gonna lie to you. The lyrics of the song contain the perfect amount of pandering, allowing me to easily plug my current situation in. But the emotions and her singular performance is what creates the waterfalls. Dear lord, Adele has still got it. She TRIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEDDDDDD LET ITTTTTTTT BEEEE KNOWWWWWWN!!!!!!! The only accurate way to sum up the communal cry that me and moms all over America had after listening to this song is this clip.
While this album will not fall anywhere near the Best Albums of 2021 list, I must say that Adele definitely still has it. I respect how infrequently she drops because if I’m going to hear a song for the rest of my life, I’d rather hear something that was worked on for 5 years and not just 5 minutes. While I think this album is kind of boring and the appeal is a little too broad, I don’t hate it. I think it does it’s job efficiently.