A mythology surrounds Adele, and trying to quantify the sheer scale of her popularity can make you feel a little dizzy. A year after its release a decade ago, one in six UK households owned a copy of her stratospheric ‘21’ – the record which made her one of the best-selling artists in musical history. At this point, even mind-boggling success feels like a given, and meanwhile, her music can sometimes feel too familiar. When ‘25’ presented a relatively safe selection of cast-iron ballads six years ago, it’s safe to say that nobody was particularly surprised. Last month, the belting break-up song ‘Easy On Me’ felt like more of the same: a hulking great heartbreak ballad backed by pounding piano. “Adele has returned with a reassuring slice of classic Adele balladry,” we wrote at the time.
It turns out that song was a red herring, because if you’re heading into ‘30’ with a clearly-defined sense of what to expect, prepare to be pleasantly surprised. Lead single ‘Easy on Me’ along with ‘Hold On’ and ‘To Be Loved’ are really the only tracks here that feel remotely like classic Adele. Though soul, jazz, and blues are hardly new influences for the Tottenham singer, who has built a record-smashing career on retooling retro sounds for contemporary pop, they feel much rawer here, bolstered by show-tuney strings arrangements, gospel, and a sample from the late jazz pianist Erroll Garner on the glimmering ‘All Night Parking’. The helium-charged ‘Oh My God’ and uneasy rolling guitars of ‘Woman Like Me’ both recall the enigmatic UK group SAULT. Perhaps it’s no surprise that their leader, Inflo, produced three of ‘30’s strongest tracks; and as a whole the line-up of collaborators on ‘30’ feels like a departure. As well as more familiar faces like Greg Kurstin and Max Martin, she’s also worked with rock heavyweight Shawn Everett [The War on Drugs, The Killers], and Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson [Tenet, Black Panther].
The first time we hear Adele’s unmistakable vocals on cinematic opener ‘Strangers By Nature’ it’s treated with a static fuzz. “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart,” she sings as doubled-up discordant vocals morph into sweeping, vintage-Disney grandeur, “for all of my loves in the present and in the dark.” Setting the tone for ‘30’ as a whole, it feels distinctly unlike anything she has done before; while Adele’s music is often charged with intense emotional sincerity, there’s an old-timey campiness here that seems intentional, and its brightly trilling strings recall the likes of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.
Making frequent use of voice notes – an idea Adele says she borrowed from Skepta and Tyler, The Creator – ‘My Little Love’ is equally surprising, morphing flecks of Golden Age jazz with contemporary beats as the singer attempts to explain her feelings after splitting from her ex-husband Simon Konecki. “I feel a little bit confused and like I don’t really know what I’m doing,” she tells their son Angelo in one voice note. On ‘To Be Loved’, produced by Shawn Everett and previous collaborator Tobias Jesso Jr, Adele pours out a staggering vocal which brings to mind Whitney Houston epics like ‘All At Once’. The production sounds so warm, you can almost feel the velvety hammers of the keys.
Elsewhere, ‘30’s new direction is more puzzling. ‘Hold On’ – produced by Little Simz and Michael Kiwanuka collaborator Inflo – could be a stand-out until the arrival of schmaltzy, theatre-pit drums leave the latter section feeling like the final wedding scene of a panto. The piano-led ‘I Drink Wine’ has early promise with its knowing wink of a title and gospel influences, but suffers from a similar fate as cheesy-sounding percussion transforms it into Savvy B: The Musical. The raucous acoustic strums and bright, Sam Fender-ish energy of ‘Can I Get It’ is initially intriguing – Adele does indie rock, anyone? – but it’s jarringly derailed by a lone whistling pop hook.
Though this is her most creative record to date, the lyrics stick to safer territory. It is fun hearing her be more playful (“Let me just come…” she belts out on ‘Can I Get It’ leaving a mischievous pause, “and get it”) but there are plenty of cliches, too. “Oh I hope in time we will both find peace of mind,” she sings on ‘I Drink Wine’, “sometimes the road less travelled is a road best left behind.” Not always the case, it turns out.
Ahead of releasing ‘30’ Adele jokingly told fans to expect an album about “divorce, babe”. And though cartoon birds seem to flutter around the newly-infatuated windows of ‘All Night Parking’ – one of its lone love songs – this is largely a record about a divorce of kinds. Namely, trying to separate out the strands of herself again after a life-altering break-up. Though there are glimmers of hope in places, it doesn’t prevail. “No amount of love can keep me satisfied,” she sings on the gut-wrenchingly pessimistic closer ‘Love is a Game’. “Heartache, it’s inevitable,” she shrugs elsewhere, “but I’m no good at doing it well, not that I care.”
This devastating level of honesty means that, despite its more experimental moments, ‘30’ still winds up feeling like trademark Adele, in its own way, most of the time. And after fair accusations of playing it safe musically in the past, it’s refreshing to see the pop titan treading braver territory – even if the hit-rate isn’t 100 per cent.
Release date: November 19
Release label: Columbia Records