Words: Joseph Ryan-Hicks
“Right then, I’m ready.”
To say expectations are high for 30, Adele’s fourth studio album and first in six years, is an understatement. Despite the commercial success of its predecessor, 25, critics were quick to point out the record’s lack of musical evolution and reliance on the tried-and-test ballads we had come to expect from the North London-born songstress. Tracks like ‘When We Were Young’ and ‘Hello’, as strong as they were, trod similar territory to 21’s own smash singles, ‘Set Fire to The Rain’ and ‘Someone Like You’. However, accusations of unoriginality were not enough to put off the public, who bought 2015’s effort in their millions - 22 million, in fact.
But in a world where an artist’s musical output is described as “content”, and some of pop’s biggest names are churning out more music than ever to sustain relevance (since Adele last dropped new music in 2015, Ariana Grande has released four studio albums, one live album, and a Christmas EP), a lot is to be expected of an album that has been six years in the waiting. And as the pop rulebook would have us believe; a brand-new look signals a refreshed musical direction too, right?
‘Strangers by Nature’, the album-opener, is as cinematic as an Adele record has ever sounded. Its lush, old-school Hollywood strings evoke La-La Land’s Golden Age. It’s evident from the get-go that we’re a long way from Tottenham, Toto. The dreamy ode to former lovers feels like the shedding of a skin and the start of a new chapter. However, this turns out not to be the case. Instead, the listener is plunged into the thick of Adkin’s heartbreak with ‘Easy on Me’, perhaps the most straightforward lead single of her career. Following on is ‘My Little Love’ - a lyrically tender, often at times heart-breaking anthem for single parenthood. The track sees Adkins address *the* divorce and battling feelings of anxiety and loneliness in the aftermath. Voice note recordings of conversations with her son are dripped over the final few notes of the song, further pulling at the heartstrings.
It takes a while for things to shift emotional gears, but it’s here that 30 gets most exciting. ‘Oh My God’ is Adele finally having some fun and is one of the brightest, bounciest tracks on the album. “I am a grown woman and I do what I want to do”, she declares, unleashing her inner Beyoncé. With no pause for respite, the listener is thrust into the exquisitely titled ‘Can I Get It’ - sadly Max Martin’s only contribution to the album. “You tease me with your control”, she sings over a thumping guitar groove. Frankly, it’s a joy to hear Adele having quite this much fun. I’ll even forgive the Flo Rida-esque whistle chorus.
But just as the party’s getting started, ‘I Drink Wine’ turns up to spoil all the fun. The sobering ballad sees Adele freeing herself from other people’s expectations, and as empowering as the lyrics may be, it feels like the party that was just getting started is already over. There is a brief glimmer of hope with ‘All Night Parking’, which is begging for a Doja Cat verse over its lo-fi hip-hop beats and is guaranteed to be playlisted on Spotify’s ‘Chill’ mixes for the next year. But soon enough, we return to business as usual with back-to-back ballads to polish off the last third of the album. ‘Hold On’ was made for stadiums and is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. “Oh my God, I’m such a mess”, sings Adkins, in a way that only she could deliver so self-deprecatingly yet so beautifully.
The album closes with ‘Love Is A Game’. Here, Adkins delivers her most interesting vocals on the album. There is something Winehouse-esque about the way she drawls from one lyric to the next, and it’s compelling to hear her play with her vocal delivery in this way. Paired with '60s girl group backing vocals and themes of doomed love, this could comfortably slot in somewhere on Amy’s Back to Black. It does, however, conclude the album on a rather sombre note. “Love is a game for fools to play, and I ain’t foolin’”, she sings. After the emotional highs and lows of the 30, it feels almost unfair to leave listeners on such a cliff-hanger.
While Adkins's fourth studio album isn’t quite the sucker-punch we had hoped for, it does provide us with a brutal, honest account of the last six years of her life. It’s the kind of honesty that is sadly lacking in so much of what we hear on the radio today, and for that, we can only be grateful. While Adkins's relatability is ever-endearing, it does feel like 30 misses some opportunities to rip up the Adele rulebook and try something different. But after the last couple of years we’ve had, sometimes we just need to let it all out… and drink wine.
30 by Adele is out now.