When Adele unleashed her latest single, and the first from her new album, “Easy on Me”, upon the pandemic-stricken world in October this year, it was easy to roll your eyes and be cynical, to shrug it off as just another Adele-by-numbers piano ballad in the mould of “Someone Like You” or “Hello”. But those of us who rolled our eyes were wrong, and should have been rolling our ears in the deep instead. Because multiple listens revealed that “Easy on Me” was a deep listening experience, and that it contained a much richer singing tone than ever before from Adele. There’s a palpable sense in the song that she has far more control over the long drawn-out notes that are her trademark, swooping up and down and flitting delicately about over each “easy” with the joy and life of a young bird that’s just learnt to fly.
In retrospect, it was a sign of greater things to come. Because 30 is not only her best album to date, it’s the first to live up to the potential that her powerhouse vocals have always portended. And it does so, in the grand pop tradition, by undercutting the momentous drama of her voice by allowing chinks and flaws in its grand design to keep peeping out.
Just when you feel that she’s starting to go over-the-top with her caterwauling again (as this listener believes she did far too many times on 19, 21 and 25), Adele seems to intuit what you’re thinking, and rescues the music from excess of melodrama by injecting some humour and respite into proceedings: there’s the chipmunk-styled backing vocals on “Cry Your Heart Out” and “Love is a Game”, cheekily mocking Adele’s sincerity; there’s the sweet voice messages with her son on “My Little Love”, where we finally hear her Cockney accent on one of her albums; there’s the droll spoken-word “one more time” at the end of “Woman Like Me”; there’s the uptempo beats of “Cry Your Heart Out”, “Oh My God”, and “Can I Get It”… that’s one-two-three tracks in a row, folks, on an Adele album!
And then there are the tours-de-force, the songs that last for over six minutes, five of them altogether that comprise nearly half of the tracklist and over half of the album’s running time. These are not only longer than anything else Adele’s ever recorded, but also more adventurous and compelling, more beautifully written, and structured and produced with greater intricacy (thanks not only to Adele of course, but also a superb host of session musicians, and a team of best-that-money-can-buy producers). Only “My Little Love” feels like it goes on too long, with the early lovely voice messages done with her son later supplanted by an overly self-indulgent solo one which ends with her sobbing – one of the rare occasions on the album that Adele seems to forget that more is often less. The other four six-minute epics, however, are triumphs.
First up there’s “I Drink Wine”, with a piano part that other reviewers have compared to Elton John, and which is altogether as adventurous as any of his best tracks from the 70s. It’s keyed to memorable and witty sob lines such as “So I hope I learn to get over myself” and “When I was a child, every single thing could blow my mind/Soaking it all up for fun, but now I only soak up wine”, which typify the album’s careful treading of the fine line between funny and tragic. But it’s the music you’ll remember it for, the disorientating mix of loud backup vocals and absolutely amazing lead workouts from Adele, which use every trick in the book to keep a soppy song compelling for its entire length, just like Paul McCartney on “Hey Jude”. Adele shows here that she’s learnt the greater beauty and musical drama of well-deployed imperfections: hesitations that make her miss the beat, gasps and grunts that risk aesthetic displeasure on the part of Top 40 listeners, high notes obviously strained for rather than reached with ease. These tricks are all so much more compelling than just showing off how long you can warble, and makes listening an addictive experience: you never know where her voice is going to venture next, or how strained it will become in its emotional journey. At the end of the six minutes, you feel that you could easily listen for another six; you yearn for the adventure to carry on.
Then there are the three dramatic songs that end the album, one after the other, creating a grand temple of a climax that fully justifies Adele’s recent comments that albums should be listened to in the order that they’re created. The sequencing of these three is stunning, and she’s completely right that shuffling them amongst the shorter songs on the album would diminish their impact.
“Hold On” is a gospel epic that seems to me to be inspired by the intricately plotted workouts on Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, a song that builds gradually on its piano-and-vocals opening to add more and more drama into the mix, from church choir backing singers to perfectly timed entrances for bass licks and drum rolls, in a crescendo that is completely gripping and very moving. Then there’s “To Be Loved”, in which Adele sings that she will “stand still and let the storm pass by”, and then enacts that very storm herself by the song’s end in a barrage of melisma-filled vocal howls that are even more powerful when you realise just what it is she’s howling: “I tried”, again and again and again, like the prodding of an open wound, an admission of failure on her part in the face of a divorce that she mostly blames herself for, which sums up the message of the whole album with brutal precision. And finally, a little lighter on its feet and hence a perfect closer, there’s “Love is a Game”, which much like Amy Winehouse believes it’s a losing game, but evinces a belief in love anyway, in spite of itself, through the joy of music: here all cinematic swells of strings, flutes and organ parts, an audacious mixture of R&B and jazz fusion approximations for the pop market. What’s more, despite love being a losing game, she ends the album by admitting “I’ll do it all again”, which if you’re anything like me will make your heart really go out for the lady.
30 is a great leap forward from Adele’s previous albums in terms of aspiration and imagination, not just in any of the above epics, but also in the quieter moments, such as the Erroll Garner-sampling “All Night Parking”, where she plays around with lounge jazz vocal stylings in the manner of Corinne Bailey Rae to gorgeous effect. The album’s melodrama is sometimes excessive, and it’s a shame that it begins with its weakest and most teenagery line, “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart”, which even Morrissey at his worst might have been embarrassed to warble. But the consistent sense of playfulness (like Morrissey at his best) shows that Adele, who really does understand music, has learnt plenty from such professed heroes as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj; Adele seems keenly aware that African-American music’s greatest gift to the world is in showing a race who suffered unbelievable historical hardships a way to transcend, as in the song “How I Got Over”. From the chanting of chain gangs to Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” to Aretha Franklin’s demand for “Respect” to Kendrick Lamar’s and BLM protester’s insistence that “we’re gonna be alright”, African-American music’s great overriding narrative has been about how they got over.
Adele’s personal battles aren’t in any way comparable to the historical atrocities faced by African-Americans, of course – and her embarrassment at 25 beating Lemonade at the Grammys demonstrates that like any good person she’s aware of this. But there’s no reason why she shouldn’t use the musical modes and techniques of great black musical pioneers to enliven her own work, to use their example as a means to help illuminate and even try to overcome her own personal tribulations following a messy divorce, and to use R&B and gospel flourishes as indicators of joy and euphoria as well as acknowledgment of pain and suffering in her darkest hour. If she’d called this album “How I Got Over”, it perhaps would’ve been too blatant an appropriation, but it also would’ve made sense.
30 is quite clearly about how she got over her divorce. And the fact that she did so with a musical intelligence to match her emotional intelligence is a win not just for her but for all of her millions of fans (I now, for the first time, include myself in that considerable number). If you’re still cynical about her musical intelligence, listen to any of the three long songs that close the album, and be prepared to be awed into a new appreciation. And if you’re still cynical about her emotional intelligence, try explaining away this incredible line from “Cry Your Heart Out”, which is a divorce mantra to match anything on Blood on the Tracks: “I created this storm, it’s only fair I have to sit in its rain.”
Now that’s what they call setting fire to the rain.