Adele makes an impressive return with ‘30′
The massively popular British singer's first album in six years arrives on Friday.
The setting at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles for Adele: One Night Only, the concert special that aired Sunday on CBS, was well-chosen, and not just because the overhead drone shots looked fabulous and the golden earrings in the shape of the planet Saturn that Adele wore struck an astronomical theme.
The dramatic visuals for the performance promoting 30 (Columbia / Melted Stone ***), the British singer’s self-assured and marvelously sung new album, which she has said is about “divorce, baby, divorce,” put the powerhouse vocalist up where she belongs.
On screen, she was presented as a ballad-singing goddess dressed in a black Schiaparelli mermaid gown, presiding over her own personal Mount Olympus. Appropriate enough since, as a commercial force, Adele stands alone in the cosmos, above mere pop music mortals.
The last decade’s two biggest-selling albums are her 21, which moved over 12 million copies, and 25, which has sold more than 9 million. Adele’s closest sales competition has been Taylor Swift, who moved the release of her new Red (Taylor’s Version) ahead one week to Nov. 12, presumably to avoid a conflict with 30, which comes out Friday.
Nobody wants to go toe-to-toe with Adele. And that’s perhaps for the best, considering that, in telling Oprah Winfrey (while both were wearing white pantsuits) about the boxing skills she’s honed, Adele joked that she has “a left hook that could kill you.”
When it comes to trouncing competition, Adele hasn’t lost her touch. “Easy on Me,” the one song from 30 released in advance of the album, is a down-tempo ballad sung with impeccable restraint that’s almost entirely absent of drums or percussion.
The quiet, troubled song that addresses her ex-husband Simon Konecki (whom she married in 2018 and divorced this year) and their 9-year-old, son Angelo, is out of step with pop music trends, both in terms of tempo and volume.
Analysts wondered if Adele — who is 33, but names albums after her age the year she began writing them — could again be a dominant force in a purely streaming musical age.
The answer is yes. “Easy on Me” broke a Spotify record with 24 million streams in a single day and is a hit across multiple formats. If you give your car radio dial a spin, it’s hard not to hear it.
From the One Night Only broadcast TV event (including a not terribly revealing interview with Oprah) to an emphasis on physical product (500,000 LPs have been shipped to retailers), everything about the rollout for Adele’s first album in six years has been old school.
That sense of the Adele record as a major event convinced me to do my early listening to 30 in unusual circumstances. No music was being provided in advance, unless critics wanted to head to New York for an early listen.
So I found myself in a lounge in Sony Music’s downtown Manhattan office with four other journalists last week, hearing 30 eight days early.
I told colleagues no, I wouldn’t be able to smuggle them in inside a duffel bag. My phone was taken away, and photos of illustrious Columbia acts like Miles Davis and Bob Dylan looked down from the walls, like Hall of Fame hall monitors making sure nothing untoward was going on.
Adele has come across as impressively well-adjusted in prerelease interviews. She’s in a relationship with sports agent Rich Paul — yes, that Rich Paul, the Klutch Sports exec who’s the target of Philly fans’ ire over his guidance of Sixers star Ben Simmons, who hasn’t played a game this season.
» READ MORE: Rich Paul and Ben Simmons keep showing there’s no bottom. It’s time to listen to them | Mike Sielski
But Adele fans needn’t worry that their hero is too content to make satisfying music. 30 was written pre-pandemic, and is full of tumult and torment — and songs of determined resilience. The opening line sets the mood: “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart,” Adele sings. “For all of my lovers, in the present and in the dark.”
The song is “Strangers by Nature,” a Judy Garland homage that’s a tip-off that 30 will expand the dusky voiced singer’s range. The song — about our inability to ever really know each other — reaches back to pre-rock pop.
On 30, Adele teams with songwriter-producers she’s worked with before, including Greg Kurstin, Max Martin, and Tobias Jesso, with whom she cowrote the confessional “To Be Loved,” which recalls early-1970s Carole King and is the album’s most grandiose track.
“My Little Love,” produced by Kurstin, is the first of several tearjerkers. It includes voice-notes-recorded conversation between Adele — whose last name is Adkins — and her son. “Mommy’s been having really big feelings lately,” she confides. “I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing.” “At all?” he cutely asks.
“Cry Your Heart Out,” is the smartly sequenced album’s first head-nodding move toward the dance floor. And 30 goes there in earnest on “Can I Get It”, a pairing with Swedish hitmaker Martin and production partner Shellback.
But 30 also finds Adele reaching out for new source material and collaborators. “All Night Parking” is a romantic interlude featuring a luxuriant vocal and a sample of the late jazz pianist Erroll Garner.
The understated “Strangers,” pairs Adele off with Ludwig Goransson, best known for his work with Childish Gambino.
The most intriguing new collaborator, though, is Inflo, the Black British songwriter Dean Josiah Cover, who cowrote and produced three of 30′s final four songs.
Inflo, who like Adele grew up in north London, is best known for work with singer Michael Kiwanuka and as the force behind mysterious British R&B and funk assemblage Sault, who have released five stellar albums since 2019.
One Inflo collab, “Woman Like Me” is a direct dismissal of an unworthy paramour. “It is so sad a man like you could be so lazy,” Adele sings, sounding exasperated. “I saw what my heart can really do, now some other man will get the love I have for you.”
That is followed by “Hold on,” another Inflo production on which Adele hits a low before finding the strength to go on. In the verses, she’s as low as she can go: “I swear I am such a mess, the harder I try I regress / I am my own worst enemy, right now I truly hate being me.”
But Adele is not one to stay down. “Love will soon come,” she sings, reassuring herself in the song’s atmospheric middle section, and reminding herself: “Take time to be gracious.”
And by the song’s end, Adele is soaring, vowing to make it through in a tour de force vocal performance, aided by a choir made up of “Adele’s crazy friends.” The members of that group aren’t enumerated in the credits, but once the impressive return that is 30 is out in the world, their numbers will surely continue to grow.