“Divorce, babes. Divorce,” Adele snarked during an Instagram live leading up to the release of her newest album. With a voice dripping in a fascinating mixture of earnestness, sarcasm, and wistfulness, Adele uttered three words that would eventually prove to be the consummate description of 30’s central theme. Her nuanced delivery of those words, however, would soon prove to be a sly preview of the album’s sprawling exploration of the seas of grief, anxiety, insecurity, scorn, lust, and gratitude. 30, Adele’s fourth studio album, is easily her best. It’s a gorgeous body of work that finds Adele at her most fearless and her most vulnerable. Featuring production from Inflo, Max Martin, Tobias Jesso Jr., and longtime collaborator Greg Kurstin, Adele uses 30 to meander through a cornucopia of genres and influences that she shied away from on previous records. And yet, the album sounds like a homecoming of sorts for Adele — she’s embracing herself in her fullness instead of running away from the parts that are less savory for her.
This kind of maturation probably has something to do with the album being an audio manual for navigating one’s Saturn Return. The Saturn Return refers to the time when Saturn completes its 30-year trek to the same place it was when you were born. The intergalactic phenomenon has been a major theme for the 30 press run from the album’s title to Adele’s new tattoo to her new fashion choices. Let’s explore how Adele processed her Saturn Return and created the best album of her career, track by track:
1. “Strangers By Nature”
30 opens with the majestic “Strangers By Nature.” “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart,” she croons over a Ludwig Göransson composition that evokes the nimble magic of woodland pixies. Adele delivers a singularly haunting vocal performance. With the arrangement thrusting her voice to the forefront, she sneaks into a breathy upper register when tackling gorgeous ascending melodies. The Disney-esque strings gift Adele’s lyrics and vocal performance a support system that validates their drama. Throughout “Strangers By Nature” there are hints at inevitable disaster (listen to the gloom baked into “Will I ever get there?”), but as the song moves into a more raw and unpolished zone, the disaster stays at a distance. The vocalizations in the song’s outro are a preview of the voice memos that are interspersed throughout the album — windows into Adele’s darkest depths as she works through her Saturn Return.
2. “Easy On Me”
Out of all of the songs on 30, “Easy On Me,” the album’s lead single, is the closest we get to the standard piano-and-vocal ballads that populated much of 21 and 25. Upon its initial release, “Easy On Me” was eagerly welcomed by music listeners. The tender lyrics of loss and healing resonated universally, but it was Adele’s extended stay in her falsetto on the hook that truly tugged at the heartstrings. Dedicated to her nine-year-old son Angelo with the aim to help him understand why his parents divorced, “Easy On Me” is remarkably emotionally nuanced. In the context of the full album, the Greg Kurstin-produced track functions as a sort of dual intro along with “Strangers By Nature.” If “Strangers” was the introduction of the narrative threads that comprise the album’s theme of (romantic) love lost, then “Easy” is the introduction of the narrative threads that comprise the album’s other themes of growth and healing.
3. “My Little Love”
Despite being a mostly cohesive album, 30 has its fair share of jarring turns. “My Little Love” is the first of about four jarring turns. The transition to “My Little Love” may come as a surprise, but the song is easily one of the most immersive and best songs of Adele’s career so far. Co-written and produced by Kurstin, the track is a deeply introspective conversation that Adele is having with her son and with herself at the same time. What is most striking about “My Little Love” is the way it displays Adele’s heightened vocal flexibility. She’s executing runs that are more complex than a fair amount of her previous records. The moody record dips into blue-eyed soul and swaggers its way through confessional lyrics like “My little love / Tell me, do you feel the way my past aches? / When you lay on me, can you hear the way my heart breaks?” Adele’s background vocals game has also improved. On 30, they add fullness to the record and function as additional characters in the album’s storyline. The stacks of background vocals sound like Adele’s past and future selves just trying to work shit out as she compartmentalizes her emotions in her head. “My Little Love” is one of the most vulnerable music moments of the year.
4. “Cry Your Heart Out”
In the same way that “Send My Love (To Your New Lover)” was a pleasant surprise uptick in tempo on 25, “Cry Your Heart Out” introduces a brief string of songs that up the urgency of 30. Some of the greatest pop songs are the ones that are about dancing the pain away. From Lorde’s “Supercut” to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” juxtaposing the innate euphoria of quick tempos and bouncy melodies against lyrics soaked in melancholy is a surefire way to craft a terrific pop song. Assisted by Kurstin once again, Adele leans into reggae influences with production that blends organs and eclectic percussion such as vibraslap and bongos. The chorus opts for straightforward lyrics (“Cry your heart out, it’ll clean your face / When you’re in doubt, go at your own pace”) that are bolstered by her winking whimsical delivery. In contrast, the verses and pre-chorus get a bit more vulnerable as Adele delivers lines like “when will I begin to feel like me again? / I’m hanging by a thread” with a healthy dose of anguish. Most importantly, this track introduces the high-pitched Motown-esque background vocals that reappear throughout the album.
5. “Oh My God”
Easily one of the most immediately arresting songs on 30, “Oh My God” also masterfully tackles the gray area between moving on from a relationship and trusting yourself to take those next steps. “‘Cause this is trouble, but it feels right / Teetering on the edge of Heaven and Hell / Is a battle that I cannot fight,” she muses in the song’s chorus. This track leans heavily into the standard Top 40 that Adele has long been propped up as the antithesis of, but her experimentation with intonation and the way she bleeds each phrase into the next elevates the whole affair. By the time we get to the gospel-inspired breakdown in the song’s outro, Adele’s risk has more than paid off. She pleads “Lord, don’t let me, let me down” over impassioned handclaps and tambourine. It’s one of the moments on 30 that reminds us that vulnerability doesn’t need to be a dramatic piano-backed ballad.
6. “Can I Get It”
Upon release, many people disregarded “Can I Get It” as a vapid throwaway pop track. Given the appearance of Max Martin and Shellback in the credits and the straightforward structure and message of the song, it’s understandable — but not correct. “Can I Get It,” from a sonic standpoint, is a reminder of the country and Americana influences that have grounded a significant portion of Adele’s music since 21. Those influences actually manifest themselves multiple times throughout 30 (Chris Stapleton appears on the duet version of “Easy On Me” for the album’s deluxe edition), but “Can I Get It” leans into the country-pop lane to soundtrack its exploration of lust. Although Adele is singing of her want for a romantic relationship over a sex-based one, the steamy moans that punctuate the song’s hook are markers of the temptations of lust that still swirl in her psyche. Guitars, keyboard, drums, and handclaps make up the bulk of the production, but those dated whistles do put a damper on things.
7. “I Drink Wine”
“I hope I learn to get over myself,” Adele wails on this standout track. Don’t we all, Adele? Don’t we all. This grandiose track (David Campbell’s string arrangement is spectacular) finds Adele coping with life forcing the rose-colored glasses of youth and naïveté off of her face. “I Drink Wine” balances a very classic, almost Tony Bennett-esque, feel with a downright comedic vocal performance. Adele’s wry delivery of “When I was a child, every single thing could blow my mind / Soaking it all up for fun, but now I only soak up wine” is nothing short of genius. There’s dark humor in internalizing and understanding the lessons that life accosts us with, and Adele captures every shade of those emotions in the delivery of that one line. Melodically, there’s an air of unpredictability around “I Drink Wine.” The song doesn’t lift when you would expect to, and even the moments that are set up to explode have a slight restraint to them. This tension is incredibly hard to achieve, but, more importantly, it’s an intelligent way to convey the lyrical themes of the song through the actual composition.
8. “All Night Parking”
30’s sole interlude also doubles as Adele’s first official collaboration. Legendary pianist Eroll Garner earns a featured performer credit on “All Night Parking” thanks to his enchanting keys. Juxtaposed against robust trap drums, Adele fondly considers a brief moment of post-divorce love doomed by distance. “The sight of you is dramatic, one glimpsе and I panic inside / I get lost in our hours ’cause you possess powers I can’t fight,” she croons. From the doo-wop influences to those recurring high-pitched background vocals, the mystical track is a welcome moment of reprieve before the emotional behemoths that are the album’s final four tracks.
9. “Woman Like Me”
Adele’s songwriting on 30 is sharper than it’s ever been, but “Woman Like Me” may be the record’s magnum opus in that regard. A biting takedown of her ex-husband, “Woman Like Me” is a painstakingly honest conversation where Adele reclaims her self-worth and details how, although she acknowledges her own shortcomings in her relationship, the romance’s demise was not her fault alone. The first of three Inflo-produced tracks on the album, “Woman Like Me” is arguably the barest song on the album. Adele’s reserved vocal performance is backed by solemn guitar and drums. “That’s why you think I make you feel small / But that’s your projection, it’s not my rejection,” she explains. Other songs on 30 embody melodrama in their composition and vocal performance, but on “Woman Like Me,” Adele digs into the most uncomfortable depths of her truth to pull out an absolute showstopper. The clarity with which she wrote this song is only achievable through a Saturn Return. Cathartic isn’t even the word.
10. “Hold On”
A grueling slow burn of a song, “Hold On” is just over six minutes of Adele reaching for joy and reminding herself that she is worthy of happiness and that she will be able to find it again. “Hold On” could have very easily slipped into that mind-numbingly corny “self-empowerment” brand of adult contemporary pop songs. The song never actually veers into that lane because Adele is not preaching at us, she’s speaking to herself and we just happen to have been given access to that conversation. “So just hold on / Let time be patient / Let pain be gracious,” she preaches over a mélange of strings, guitar, piano, drums, bass, and organ. The busy arrangement of “Hold On” is a stark contrast to the simplicity of “Woman Like Me,” but it works because of how well “Hold On” is paced. The song steadily builds to its inflection point at that big post-bridge belt. The Motown-esque backing vocals also reappear alongside a gospel-influenced call-and-response session (which should’ve gone on for at least one more minute). Already soundtracking Amazon ads, “Hold On” will go down as one of Adele’s most timeless songs.
11. “To Be Loved”
Just two days before the release of 30, Adele tweeted a video of her performing the entirety of “To Be Loved” while sitting on a couch. Adele has noted that she may “never” sing this song live because of how emotional it is… and that’s completely understandable. With Tobias Jesso Jr. on piano, Adele rips through this six-minute ballad with the most gut-wrenching vocal performance of her career. There are no layers of background vocals or string arrangements, just Adele’s lead vocal wailing lyrics like “painting walls with all my secret tears / filling rooms with all my hopes and fears.” What’s interesting about “To Be Loved” is that although the song has a clearly defined structure, Adele’s performance feels more on the stream-of-consciousness side of things. She wades through her own guilt and shame and contentment through this powerhouse performance. Her belts are cleaner than they’ve ever been, but when she starts to lose control of her voice in the final chorus, something divine happens. Every scratch of rasp and every gulp for air adds texture that can’t be manufactured. “To Be Loved” will definitely be up there with “Someone Like You” and “All I Ask” as one of Adele’s defining ballads.
12. “Love Is A Game”
“Love Is A Game” brings us full circle. The decidedly Disney-esque strings recall “Strangers By Nature” and the droll whimsy of Adele’s vocal performance recalls “I Drink Wine.” At the onset, however, “Love Is A Game” finds Adele subverting the romantic expectations of the composition with lyrics that tackle her own sour experiences with love and how she’s grown from those moments. She croons, “it’s so sad how incapable of learning to grow I am” over a wall of sound comprised of guitar, piano, handclaps, and bass. Inflo leans more into the stylings of “Hold On” than “Woman Like Me” — Judy Garland-esque traditional pop that feels of-the-moment instead of like a stale homage. Adele finally sounds completely in control by the album’s closing track. If every prior individual track detailed some sort of lesson she learned during her Saturn Return, then “Love Is A Game” is the summary. And she ain’t fooling.
30 is a triumph. Adele delivered her best album by taking risks that purposely disrupt the formula that vaulted her into the music industry anomaly that she is. Despite a few minor moments where the transitions between songs were jarring and lacked cohesiveness, 30 is a remarkably well-sequenced set. The album runs just under one hour, but it doesn’t feel impossible to get through like so many other 2021 albums. As if we didn’t know already, Adele is truly in a class of her own.
Key Tracks: “Woman Like Me” | “My Little Love” | “All Night Parking” | “Love Is A Game”