It’s been six years since Adele released her widely praised last album, “25.” In the time since, Adele has experienced major personal upheaval as she went through a divorce. With “30” — officially out Friday and already considered the best album of her career by many critics — the singer not surprisingly presents a more mature sound.
More unexpected is the way Adele holds herself accountable for her part in the unraveling of her marriage and other life events, a rarity for a pop star. The album is essentially a love letter to her son, Angelo, explaining the divorce and taking ownership for its repercussions. In writing it, she leans into her strengths and creates beautifully crafted, jazzy and soulful heartbreak ballads.
As Oprah Winfrey noted in speaking about the singer, some people stay in unhappy marriages for their children, not realizing their misery might hurt the child. Adele, though, “said she wanted to present a happy person to her son.” Adele herself told Rolling Stone she felt lost after the changes — not seeing her son every day, spending more time alone. “It made me really sad,” she said. “Then having so many people that I don’t know know that I didn’t make [the marriage] work … it f------ devastated me. I was embarrassed. No one made me feel embarrassed, but you feel like you didn’t do a good job.”
She said she became heavily involved in “anything that could soothe [her] anxiety.” She traveled anywhere with “brilliant energy.” She started hiking, getting sound baths and discovered she’s allergic to many types of gluten, all the while embracing the roller coaster of emotions and discovering new ways to build a fresh life.
The album is about that time.“My Little Love” — which features teary voice notes and snippets of conversation with her son — includes her reflection that she doesn’t “recognize [herself] in the coldness of the daylight.” In many ways, the entirety of the album feels like an attempt to recognize herself again and pull herself out of the anxiety that followed the divorce.
Much of this comes in the form of gentle curiosity. Adele seems to be asking who she is at this new stage in her life and what happiness looks like now. On “Strangers By Nature,” she asks “Will I ever get there?/ Oh, I hope that someday I'll learn/ To nurture what I've done.” On “Cry Your Heart Out,” she asks, “When will I begin to feel like me again?/ I'm hanging by a thread,” before answering herself again with the ending lines, “Cry your heart out/ It’ll clean your face/ When you’re in doubt/ Go at your own pace.” It’s a gentle reassurance that times of uncertainty are survivable.
Adele also told Rolling Stone self-compassion is a lesson she’s trying to show her son. It’s important to engage in self-care not only for ourselves but also for those around us, and it can be a way of modeling positivity to others. As Adele belts out the words “go easy on me,” she gives a look at her own vulnerabilities for her son. “He needs to know everyone goes through it,” she said in the interview.
Musically, this album is Adele’s strongest yet. She was still exploring her musical voice and what genre fit her voice in previous albums, and they lacked the cohesion and attention to detail this project demonstrates. But as the sultry R&B track “Cry Your Heart Out” shows, Adele has now found her stride. The album is also more elegant and ambitious, the production more polished, the lyrics wiser and more introspective. There’s still the classic Adele sound, as in the piano-led track “I Drink Wine.” But a song like “All Night Parking” shows the change that has occurred since “25”; it’s more adventurous and dynamic.
Adele has been a success from the first moment she broke onto the music scene. She has won 15 Grammys throughout her career. Her sophomore album, “21,” was the bestselling album of the year, and her single “Skyfall” wonthe Academy Award for best original song. But this album will be a career-defining one for Adele in a new way. It proves that even as one of the most successful artists of the 21st century, she still can grow and surprise us.