Review Summary: I created this storm, it's only fair I have to sit in its rain.
In spite of the hype surrounding Adele's "newest album in five years' time", the bar for 30
was not particularly high to begin with. It just had to be better than 25
, a lukewarm and unimaginative collection of songs that felt more like 21
's B-sides than anything all that special. So even if 30
wound being merely decent, it would still be a far more deserving sequel to 21
than the flimsy, uninspired 25
. Thankfully, 30
wound up being pretty damn good. It's an improvement over 25
in almost every field: composition, production, performance, stage presence, passion, lyrics. These are key improvements that completely skirt the chief issue I had with the previous record: namely, its' tepid, unchallenging nature.
Look no further than "Strangers By Nature", album opener and genuine tearjerker. At first, gorgeous, slow electric piano with a helpful dosage of low-end provides the solitary backdrop to Adele's ethereal vocals, a la "The Way I Feel Inside", before the refined, elegant string sections and processed vocal harmonies swoop in to paint the song with sensitive, teary-eyed coloratura. "Strangers By Nature" is three minutes of evocative ear candy, an album opener on par with "Rolling In The Deep" in terms of staying power and raw, unchecked emotion. "Easy On Me" is classic Adele, with somber, heavy piano and Adele's powerful-yet-wavering voice bringing life to the minimalist ballad - it does sound a lot like Lauren Daigle's "You Say", but in fairness to Adele, that
particular song sounded an awful lot like an Adele pastiche to begin with, and I have a stronger bias towards the buttery, rich chord progressions of "Easy On Me", anyway. And the submerged drum beat and commodious blend of synths and airy choral vocals in the background of "My Little Love", along with the vinyl-processed dialogue samples between Adele and her little son that pop up every now and then, are a genuine surprise, giving the entire piece the distinctive, nostalgic feeling of floating through a distant memory, and that ambient, drifting energy contained within "My Little Love" makes the almost seven-minute runtime a lot easier to swallow. It's a little melodramatic, but it's also absurdly personal, and that makes it a keeper.
And the album just keeps hitting you with beautiful, well-used music at almost every turn. The blend of vintage, jazz-induced stylings - upright bass, crisp piano, swung vocal melody - and contemporary, electronic production makes the immaculate "Cry Your Heart Out" sound like a cut from Estelle's work on the Steven Universe
OST. "I Drink Wine" is a bright-faced, passionate, gospel-derived piano-and-organ ballad with some swing in its step and a million-dollar, descending-bass chord progression, the whole song humming along like a bittersweet rendition of the Commodores' hit "Easy", and the minimalist, kick-and-clap-centric beat of "Oh My God" is unexpectedly bolstered by a swung, swaggering backbeat and massive, RnB-derived vocals in the hook, and it's an absolute treat throughout. 30
is a gentle, yet passionate, wave of pop music given some class and sophistication courtesy of its jazz, soul, and gospel influences. The jazzy acoustic arpeggios and sultry vocals of "Woman Like Me" sound like the gothic, weepy lovechild of Norah Jones and Sade, and the orchestral theatrics of closer "Love Is A Game" are thoroughly enjoyable, with graceful woodwinds, purring basslines, and opulent string arrangements that sound like Venetian blinds and bubbly champagne.
If there's any place where 30
actually disappoints, that would be with the one thing that 30
actually does worse
: time management. 30
is fifty-eight minutes long, and there are moments you can tell when 30
is visibly struggling to justify its runtime. "Hold On" is meandering minimalism - the last three minutes of the six-minute track are wonderfully anthemic and bombastic, dominated by stratospheric vocals and a gospel choir that lends a lot of pathos to the orchestral piece, but, frankly, it takes a little too long to get to that climactic point, the first half dominated by too much aimless emptiness. Compare that to Billie Eilish's "Happier Than Ever", a track where the discrete first and second parts of the song compliment one another perfectly well and, simultaneously, sound great on their own. "To Be Loved" is a huge, dramatic number led solely by the Ol'Reliable of Adele's discography - Adele's searing, passionate vocals and a single, warm piano, nothing more - that would have been masterful at three minutes but drags on at six-going-on-seven, and as pleasant as the lo-fi stylings of "All Night Parking" are - complete with a tasteful, winding Erroll Garner sample - the song's a little too short to make an impact and it feels like not much is done with the skinny dip into lo-fi beyond playing with the most superficial elements of said genre (tinny electronic drum beat, vinyl record SFX, et cetera).
But it's hard to call any of the songs on 30
actually bad - there are songs with dry spells, sure, or songs that don't know when to clock out and leave the party already, but even within those songs there are grace notes of utter perfection. The one song that just doesn't work all that well is "Can I Get It" - the aggressively-basic chord progression and the 2000's acoustic pop melismas Adele performs throughout it just don't feel like "Adele", and I think the fact that pop-composer superstar Max Martin had a hand in this piece could explain that. But taken as a whole, 30
is a thoroughly satisfying record, especially after the ice-cold release of 25
- it reaffirms Adele's merits as a performer and a songwriter, and though it mostly relies upon the same old emotional tricks that put Adele on the map to begin with, there's nothing wrong with knowing your strengths and zeroing in on what makes you special. It's an inviting, touching record, imperfections and all, like welcoming an old friend back into your home for the first time in a long, long while.
Frankly? It's just nice to hear Adele sing again.