A track-by-track overview of the album. Photo from Complex.
By Terrance Turner
Dec. 21, 2021
Adele is back.
The acclaimed British singer-songwriter has returned with her first album in six years. So much has changed since 2015 — she’s started working out, lost 100 pounds, sought help for anxiety, and ended her marriage to charity executive Simon Konecki. On 30, Adele reckons with that devastating divorce, a confused young son, and potential new love. Despite all those changes, the voice remains the same: almost impossibly strong and emotive, capable of window-rattling belting and gorgeous, gossamer whispers. On 30, it dips into different styles: ’60s girl-group harmonies, groovy ’70s soul, contemporary guitar ditties, and even a jazz-hip-hop hybrid. It’s her rangiest, riskiest album — and her best.
The record begins with “Strangers by Nature”, which has one hell of an opening line: “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart,” Adele sings at the start. (She co-wrote the song with Ludwig Göransson, an Oscar-winning Swedish composer who worked on “Black Panther” and with rapper Childish Gambino.) On “Strangers by Nature,” she sings in a light, airy upper register, her voice backed at first by spare synths and then by rich, cinematic strings. When the background vocals begin, the track sounds like something out of a 1950s Doris Day comedy. But it’s really a whimsical homage to Judy Garland. Adele says she had recently watched the Garland biopic Judy when she made the record, which concludes with some surprisingly soulful runs.
The next song is the lead single. “There ain’t no gold in this river/That I’ve been washing my hands in forever,” she intones on “Easy on Me”. The song is her attempt to explain to her now 9-year-old son Angelo why she left his father (Konecki). “There ain’t no room for things to change/When we’re both so deeply set in our ways,” she explains on the second verse. Then she glides through the melismatic chorus, swooping and swinging in a way that only Adele can. The song’s a great vocal showcase, but it’s also a heartfelt effort to make sense of the split to her son. And the next track follows similar ground.
“My Little Love” is a masterpiece. The arrangement is instantly memorable — ghostly backgrounds, groovy bass, meditative piano — and reminiscent of 70’s Marvin Gaye. (What’s Going On was a “very big reference” on the album, she told Vogue.) In a low, husky register, she tells her son: “My little love, I see your eyes/Widen like an ocean/When you look at me/So full of my emotions.”
“I’ve been obsessed with a nuclear family my whole life because I never came from one,” Adele told Oprah last month. (Adele’s late father, Mark Evans, never married her mother and split when Adele was 3.) “I from a very young age promised myself that when I had kids, that we’d stay together. We would be that united family.” So the failure of the marriage hit Adele hard. “I was so disappointed for my son; I was so disappointed for myself. I just thought I was going to be the one that stopped doing those bloody patterns all the time,” she added.
The sadness and disappointment permeate the record. On “My Little Love,” she grapples with her guilt over leaving Angelo’s father, sadness about dismantling the family and concerns about how the split would affect Angelo: “I wanted you to have everything I never had/I’m so sorry if what I’ve done makes you feel sad.”
The music is intercut with voice notes: snippets of conversations between Adele and Angelo that , among other things, document how honest she is with him. “Mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings recently,” she explains to him. “Like how?” he asks, in his adorable little-boy voice. “I’m feeling a bit confused,” Adele responds, “like I don’t really know what I’m doing.” The song concludes with some of an anguished voicemail she’d left for a friend after putting Angelo to bed: “I’m having a bad day. I’m having a very anxious day. I feel very paranoid, feel very stressed.”
The bad times continue on “Cry Your Heart Out,” which starts with jangly chords and cheeky, animated background vocals. Then it shifts into a sassy ’60s-style shuffle that almost masks the painful lyrics: “I’m so tired of myself, I swear I’m dead in the eyes/I have nothing to feel anymore I can’t even cry,” she laments. The chorus provides some sage advice: “Cry your heart out/It’ll clean your face/When you’re in doubt/Go at your own pace.”
Eventually Adele is ready to face the world again. “Oh My God” finds her out and about and fielding some unwelcome advances. “I was at a friend’s birthday party,” she told Zane Lowe, and people she’d met in L.A. “started trying to chirp at me at the bar.” The song sprung out of that, expressing her hesitance about jumping back into the dating pool. “I know that it’s wrong/But I want to have fun,” she muses on the song’s swirling refrain.
“Can I Get It” might be the catchiest cut on the album, a guitar-strumming ditty with a from-the-heart lyric (“I have promised you that I will love you till the end of time/Through it all, the good and bad, the ugly and divine.”) The energy ticks up with a rousing bridge: “When will you run with me, like I know you want to?”
But the energy dips right back down with “I Drink Wine”. It’s a molasses-slow piano ballad, vaguely reminiscent of “When We Were Young” — but better. It’s the least essential track on the record, but distinguishes itself with a great organ solo and a memorable line: “Sometimes the road less traveled is a road best left behind.”
“All Night Parking (with Erroll Garner)” begins with some elegant playing from the famous jazz pianist. Then out of nowhere, it segues into an R&B/trap beat — unlike anything Adele has done before. She ups the ante with a cheeky but romantic lyric: “I know you’ve got things to do (I do too). I just want to spend all my time with you,” she coos.
The mood takes another left turn with “Woman Like Me”, a brooding yet propulsive guitar track. If you imagine it as a reference, it answers every question you might have about why she ended the marriage to Konecki. On the chorus she coolly delivers lines that bite: “Complacency is the worst trait to have. Are you crazy? You ain’t never had — ain’t never had — a woman like me,” she says. “It is so sad a man like you could be so lazy.”
She later adds: “But loving you was a breakthrough. I saw what my heart can really do. Now some other man will get the love I had for you, cause you don’t care.” It’s so cold and cutting , and yet somehow still sad.
“Hold On” is a showstopper. It’s affecting even from the opening bars: Adele hits bone-chilling high notes over stark piano chords. “It’s hard to hold on to who I am when I’m stumbling in the dark for a hand,” she mourns on the first verse. Then the opening chords (and notes) are back, punctuated by the choral lines: “Let time be patient. Let pain be gracious.”
Things go from sadness to despair on the second verse:
I swear to God, I am such a messFrom “Hold On”
The harder that I try, I regress
I’m my own worst enemy
Right now, I truly hate bein’ me
But then that ghostly chorus returns, this time joined by a gentle drumbeat. And then, as the drums gently kick off, Adele’s voice takes off, rising and falling on a stirring, heartfelt run. Then she’s joined by a small amateur choir (composed of her friends), repeating: “Just hold on.” (This is the moment captured in the recent Amazon commercial.) The song builds into something almost anthemic; it’s easy to understand why Adele suggested to Zane Lowe, “I think a song like ‘Hold On’ could actually save a few lives. I really, really do.”
The album closes with two epics. “To Be Loved” is wrenching, a six-minute, 44-second masterclass vocal with piano. “It’s about time that I faced myself. All I do is bleed into someone else,” she reflects. “Painting walls with all my secret tears/Filling rooms with my hopes and fears.” She muses powerfully on the idea of what it means “to be loved, and love at the hgihest count”. It’s a slow, sad, soulful vocal, simultaneously tender and powerful.
“Love is a Game” begins with the same swirling strings that opened the record, as Adele contemplates the folly of falling in love. “All your expectations of my love are impossible,” she notes at the outset. The song brings together elements from the rest of the album: the chirpy backgrounds, the heavy strings, a ’60s-era Motown feel. It’s nowhere near as intense as what came before. But it’s a satisfying close.