There is a sense in which 2021’s biggest single – 84.9m streams in a week on one platform alone; straight to No 1 in 25 countries; a song that received more first-week plays on US radio than any other song ever – wasn’t so much a comeback as an act of global reassurance. The world may recently have lurched from one unimaginable crisis to another, but Adele’s Easy on Me brought with it the message that at least one thing hasn’t changed: Adele Adkins is still heartbroken and belting it out over a gentle piano and tasteful orchestration.
Romantic despair became her global brand from the moment she stopped the show at the 2011 Brit awards with her tearful performance of Someone Like You. It catapulted her from the massed ranks of soul-influenced singers filling a gap created by Amy Winehouse’s inability to follow up Back to Black, to mind-boggling levels of success. There’s always the chance that millions of people might flock to an upbeat Adele album that depicts her full of the joys of spring, but clearly she wasn’t taking any chances last time around: for want of new unhappiness, 2015’s 25 returned to the same failed relationships that inspired its record-breaking predecessor 21. No matter – it sold 22m copies.
No such problem six years on. Adele’s divorce from her husband is a topic that swallows 30 entirely. The first words you hear her sing are “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart”; the last are “the feelings flood me to the heights of no compromise”. In between, there are tracks called Cry Your Heart Out, Love Is a Game, To Be Loved and – fabulously – I Drink Wine, the latter, alas, not followed by songs such as I Listen to I Will Survive 32 Times and I Ring My BFF and Spend the Entire Call Sobbing Incomprehensibly. There are audio verité recordings of her discussing her divorce with her nine-year-old young son – “mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings” – and crying during “a bad day”; “I feel very paranoid … I feel lonely”. You could view the latter as bold no-holds barred wound-showing along the lines of primal scream-era John Lennon howling for his dead mother, or an artist underlining their everyday relatability in the teeth of vast fame and wealth, a glamorous new image and a host of glitzy celebrity pals. Either way, they make for profoundly uncomfortable listening.
In fact, the topic of divorce is so all-consuming that any listener who doesn’t count themselves among the millions pre-emptively rubbing their hands at the prospect of an hour of fresh woe to wallow in might find themselves wishing she’d occasionally give it a rest about how hard she tried and how much she’s cried, not least during To Be Loved. A stark piano ballad that proceeds at the pace of a 12-mile tailback on the M62, it feels as if it lasts for about six weeks, an extraordinary, rasping vocal at its climax notwithstanding.
But the subject matter isn’t the whole story of 30. Easy on Me suggested the album would deal exclusively in more of the same musically and lyrically. There are other moments like that – Hold On, the Carole King-ish I Drink Wine, the acoustic guitar-led Woman Like Me – but there are also moments where, sonically at least, Adele seems to be pushing gently at the boundaries of what people expect. Oh My God offers a rawer take on the stomping rhythm of Rolling in the Deep’s verses, tricked out with speeded-up vocal samples. Strangers By Nature and All Night Parking are rooted in pre-rock’n’roll balladry, and far more subtly and successfully than much of this century’s raft of boilerplate swing-inspired pop: the former bolstered by a swooning chorus, the latter set to samples of late jazz pianist Erroll Garner’s arpeggios.
Likewise the album’s excursions into 60s soul, which swerve the usual retro cliches. Bedecked with high-drama key changes and Hollywood strings, the closing Love Is a Game feels closer to the classy easy-listening soul of Dionne Warwick than bog-standard Motown homage. The brilliant Cry Your Heart Out, meanwhile, pairs northern soul tropes – among them a skipping beat that, in Wigan Casino terms, make it a floater rather than a stomper – with a dubby reggae undertow that seems to gradually swell and consume the track as it goes on.
Producing an album that’s different from its predecessors, without being different enough to scare anyone off, is a not-unimpressive feat, particularly under the circumstances. Given their sales figures, you couldn’t blame Adele for declining to even tinker with a formula that clearly ain’t broke. But she does, and it makes for 30’s highlights.
This week Alexis listened to
Steve Cobby - Pick Flowers Brewmaster
The annual joy of discovering something you missed via someone else’s best-of-2021 list, in this case beautiful, calming, soundtrack-y atmospherics from the former Fila Brazillia alumnus.