Less than 30 seconds into Adele’s 73 Questions, a popular Vogue video series, the singer makes the reason for the interview crystal clear. “How is Adele doing these days?” Joe Sabia, the interviewer and creator of the series, asks. “I’m great. I’m really great. I’m excited. I’m about to put my new album out,” Adele says. “And I’d assume that’s the thing you’re most excited about in life right now,” Sabia adds — but before the statement completely leaves his lips, Adele quickly interjects: "It is. And that's why you're here." Her face sports an expression that seems to say Why else would I be doing this? before immediately returning to a bright, warm smile.
Now that 30 — the best work of her career thus far — is out Friday, it’s easy to understand why Adele, a reluctant celebrity, has been on such a concentrated media blitz. In early October, she became the first person to grace the covers of both American and British Vogue in the same month, with accompanying profiles from two different writers and exquisite photo shoots by veteran photographers Alasdair McLellan and Steven Meisel. Then followed a Rolling Stone cover story and Adele’s first-ever Instagram Live; she took questions from fans about her new music and then sent everyone into a frenzy when she played a snippet of her brand-new single “Easy on Me” before its mid-October release date.
But the event that truly heralded her highly anticipated return was Sunday night’s CBS special, titled Adele: One Night Only. Ten million people tuned in to watch the singer give a tell-all interview to none other than Oprah. The program alternated between intimate moments in Oprah’s rose garden and a prerecorded live performance at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. The singer was outfitted in a custom black Schiaparelli haute couture dress, and the special was complete with stunning views of the city as late evening transitioned into night. A slate of A-list celebrities in attendance, including Lizzo, Drake, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Melissa McCarthy. During the interview, Adele opened up about her divorce from Simon Konecki, the toll the split took on their son, 9-year-old Angelo, her changing physical appearance, and, of course, the new music.
A promotional tour isn’t a novel undertaking for a celebrity by any means, but the way Adele has chosen to conduct her public reemergence says a lot. “I mean, I have to sort of gear myself up to be famous again, which famously I don’t really like being,” Adele told British Vogue. In just one sentence, the typically publicity-shy singer epitomizes her approach to the celebrity machine. She understands that it’s an act, a performance — one she doesn’t like doing and yet excels at. “I’ve got the upper hand on everything. I love it,” she says in that same interview, chatting about how she likes to toy with the press. Adele was already relatable, but as she’s gotten further into her career, she has mastered the art of providing the public with just enough information to satisfy the demands of being a star without compromising herself or her craft in the process. Impressively, with 30, a revelatory and emotionally exposed album, she has managed to toe the line between accessibility and mystery, all while keeping people’s attention about what matters most: her talent.
When “Easy on Me,” the lead single from 30, debuted, I admit I was unimpressed. This Adele seemed much more restrained than past iterations. The song lacked a memorable melody, and after waiting six years for new music, I was dissatisfied. A big, soaring song like “Hello” is what I’d been emotionally longing for, something I could dramatize while tipsy at a karaoke outing. But the decision to go against fans’ expectations was deliberate. “That song catapulted me in fame to another level that I don’t want to happen again,” Adele told American Vogue. “I’m not saying I’ve got ‘Hello’s in my pocket. I was just conscious that I didn’t want my story on this album to sound like that.” In an Apple Music interview with Zane Lowe, she talked about making music for “the 30- and 40-year-olds that are all committing to themselves and doing therapy.” She added, “That’s my vibe.” Adele knows herself. She doesn’t need a gimmick for her music to reach people, and she’s acutely aware, especially at this point in her life, of what she does and does not want. It’s this fearless dedication to herself and her own happiness that’s led her to somehow outdo herself with 30, which is lyrically devastating and sonically more interesting than anything she has ever done.
Take “Strangers by Nature,” which opens the 12-track album. It’s a dreamlike song, with gorgeous strings that seduce the ears like a lullaby, reminiscent of something you might hear in a 1960s Disney musical. Produced by Ludwig Göransson, it’s actually an homage to Judy Garland. There’s a feeling of majesty and poignancy, with lyrics like “I'll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart / For all of my lovers, in the present and in the dark.” (Adele told Rolling Stone that the track is her way of conceding that she can sometimes be a “hot mess.”) The song ends with a signal that she’s prepared to bare her soul. “Alright then,” she says. “I’m ready.”
From there, we're off to “Easy on Me,” which has grown on me since her performance of it during the One Night Only special. In interviews, Adele has described how hard it was to muster the strength to divorce her husband, and how she was afraid of what others might’ve thought. Between this, and the album’s musical and lyrical context, this song really resonates. The album doesn’t let up, going right into “My Little Love,” which is dedicated to her son. It slants more R&B than the other tracks and includes intimate voice notes. “I wanted you to have everything I never had / I'm so sorry if what I've done makes you feel sad,” she sings. A brilliant chorus that reflects the weight of her decision: “I'm holdin' on (Baby) / Mama's got a lot to learn (It's heavy).”
“Cry Your Heart Out,” a thumping banger with incisive lyrics written by Adele and record producer Greg Kurstin, whom she worked with on 2015’s “Hello,” is reminiscent of “Right as Rain” from 19. “I created this storm / It’s only fair I have to sit in its rain,” she sings, a line that captures the all-too-real feeling of wallowing in the misery of one’s own making. It’s followed by “Oh My God,” an upbeat ditty cowritten with Kurstin in which Adele expresses the complications of her newer romantic connections. It’s a fun song, one where she conveys both sensuality and recklessness: “But I'm still spinning out of control from the fall / Boy, you give good love, I won't lie / It's what keeps me comin' back even though I'm terrified.”
Adele stretches herself in ways that feel incredibly refreshing, like on the Max Martin and Shellback bop “Can I Get It,” one of the album’s many standout tracks. Others include “All Night Parking,” featuring a piano sample from the late jazz composer Erroll Garner, an evocative number about rediscovering what it’s like to fall for someone again: “Every time that you text I want to get on the next flight home / And dream next to you all night long.” Just like the feeling of falling in love, the song, the shortest on the album, leaves you wanting more. The final three tracks are superb too. “Hold On,” which she debuted during Sunday’s special, has a hauntingly gorgeous chorus. “To Be Loved,” which Adele posted to her on Twitter on Wednesday, is terrific. She’s never sounded better or pushed herself further (wait until you hear the ending), and it’s hard to imagine getting through the ballad without shedding a few tears. The album closes with “Love Is a Game,” an instant classic befitting of a great romantic love story — with one’s self.
There are no bad songs on the album, but a few, like “I Drink Wine” and “Woman Like Me,” have failed to make a significant impression. Narratively the tracks make sense. The former is “about shedding one’s ego,” she told Rolling Stone; the latter takes digs at an ex-lover. Although the two songs weren’t immediate favorites for me musically, what I did love were the lyrics; they really nail 30’s themes of searching and redefinition. “Why am I obsessin' about the things I can't control? / Why am I seekin' approval from people I don't even know?” she sings on “I Drink Wine.”
There’s something special about entering your 30s; it’s a time when you really consider how you want the rest of your life to look and put to bed old and useless notions of how it’s purportedly supposed to be. Adele sincerely opens up about her own life and conflicts during this defining decade, spotlighting a range of emotions — sadness, anger, hope — while consistently playing by her own rules. “I feel like this album is self-destruction, then self-reflection, and then sort of self-redemption,” she said recently. “But I feel ready. I really want people to hear my side of the story this time.” ●