After “Easy on Me,” people might’ve thought they had Adele all figured out.
With lilting vocals, wistful piano and a fervent plea for grace and understanding, the British artist’s first new music in nearly six years had all the trademarks we’ve come to expect from a heart-shattering Adele ballad. It’s not that people are complaining. “Easy,” which debuted last month on the Billboard Hot 100, has spent four weeks at the top.
But as a lead single, “Easy” was somewhat of a red herring for what’s to come on “30,” her sumptuous and surprising fourth studio album, out Friday. It’s clear that Adele can wield sharp lyrical daggers. This is evident in her chart-topping hits “Rolling in the Deep”, and “Set Fire to the Rain,” both from “21,” which she released 10 years ago. And after her very public divorce from Simon Konecki played out in the tabloids, she understandably could have gone to the studio with a score to settle.
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Instead, Adele, 33, turns the focus almost squarely on herself as she tries to find her identity outside of romantic and personal relationships. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the singer expressed hope that her 9-year-old son, Angelo, will one day be able to hear “30” and better understand his mom for the “layered and complicated” woman she is. This is most evident on “My Little Love”, a deeply personal confessional that almost makes it seem as though we should not be even listening.
“I don’t recognize myself in the coldness of the daylight,” she sings over a woozy blend of strings and Mellotron, admitting “I’m so far gone and you’re the only who can save me.” The mournful lullaby is intercut with voice memos of Angelo and Adele as she sweetly tells him, “Mummy’s been having a lot of feelings lately.” At one point, she breaks down in tears as she describes an unbearable loneliness she has never felt before.
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The emotional vulnerability of “My Little Love,” is perfectly matched by “Hold on,” which boasts one the album’s strongest lines, “Sometimes solitude is all we get/ but the emptyness actually allows us to forget.” But nothing can prepare you for “To Be Loved,” an unbridled exercise in honesty and self-reflection.
At nearly seven minutes, “Loved” is Adele’s longest and, perhaps, saddest song ever. Over a soft piano she tries to find out why her love is so broken and considers whether she should walk away. It’s time to face myself. All she does is to be a bleeder into another person,” she says.
Let it be known I wept for you/even started to lie to you/ It was a terrible thing to do/all because I desired to love you.
There are a multitude of “30”, which will help you reunite your heart. “Loved” may be the single that launches thousands of breakups. It’s no surprise that the hand-clapping, whistling “Can I Get It” was co-produced by Max Martin and Shellback (Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”), and the splendidly sultry track feels destined to become a Top 40 smash. Same goes for the hypnotic “Oh My God” and jaunty “Cry Your Heart Out,” which find Adele at her most playful and boundary-pushing as she ventures into R&B and ’50s doo-wop.
Elton John’s “I Drink Wine”, a form of intoxicated therapy, channels Judy Garland with the cinematically stunning “Strangers by Nature,” whose opening scene feels like it was lifted straight out of the Land of Oz.
Adele songs, after being around for more than 10 years in the limelight have been as associated with heartbreak as ice-cream and romantic comedies. But as she wisely demonstrates on “30,” it’s never too late to switch things up and fall in love with yourself for a change.