The welcome news for listeners of a nervous disposition is that 30 is not quite the utterly devastating weepy many feared. There is plenty of spirited positivity amid the self-pity and self-flagellation, allied to melodies that will have Karaoke nights booming, delivered with Adele’s customary gusto and lit up by her sheer joy when singing.
The truth is, Adele actually sounds like she has had fun recording this album, particularly in the ways her free-roaming lead vocals interact with her own tightly arranged backing vocals. Aside from some whistling and sub-vocalising from Swedish super-producers Max Martin and Shellback on the lustily uptempo acoustic western flavoured pop rock banger Can I Get It, and a group of lady friends lending ramshackle aid to the choral encouragement of the uplifting Hold On, Adele handles all vocal duties herself. Some of her carefully stacked harmonies follow familiar soul and gospel patterns, with Adele absolutely rolling in the deep blues of Oh My God, but there is also a perky vein of jazz and swing, with lots of tight high trilling reminiscent of the Andrews Sisters offering mischievous counterpoint to her luxurious lead.
The language of psychotherapy populates lyrics that can appear awkwardly formal on the page, filled with terminology that you might imagine would be difficult to invest with emotion: rebuttal, complacency, consistency, projection, expectations, breakthrough, compromise. Indeed, the winkingly titled I Drink Wine could almost be the transcription of a breakthrough session with a marriage guidance counsellor set to some ironically cheerful southern soul piano and organ.
“How can one become so bounded by choices that somebody else makes / How come we’re both a version of a person that we don’t even like?” are the opening lines, the genuinely extraordinary thing being that Adele makes this scan and flow, singing with soft, vowel-stretching cadences that pluck rhythms and rhymes out at will. “Sometimes the road less travelled is a road best left behind,” she concludes, with a tart wit at odds with the album’s deepest confessional impulses.
Adele certainly isn’t holding her opinions back. She may not go particularly easy on herself, but I wouldn’t like to be the ex characterised as complacent, inconsistent, complaining, insecure and lazy on the sensuous jazzy ripple of Woman Like Me.
Is Adele guilty of oversharing? The weepy voice notes may be a bit too much. Honestly, I question whether we really needed to hear home recordings of Adele laying all her woes on her own child (“Mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings lately”) or blubbering into her phone during bouts of insecurity: “I feel very paranoid, I feel very stressed, and I have a hangover which never helps.”
The lubricious Marvin Gaye-style Seventies soul groove of My Little Love puts the message across beautifully without Adele breaking the fourth wall and ladling on the anxiety. But oversharing is the modern social media condition, and I suspect that for many listeners this will be the final stamp of Adele’s authenticity, an unfiltered willingness to display herself at her most vulnerable and share her most intimate moments.
Really though, it is the voice and songs that create the magic. The most compelling singers always sound like they are singing to save their souls, and there has never been anything superficial about Adele’s relationship with music. She digs deep and lays it all on the line, which is at the essence of why she has been such a global sensation despite making music that owes little to contemporary pop trends.
This is certainly her strongest album yet, a work of catharsis, therapy and succour. It does what pop music is greatest at: gathering up emotions, focusing them and pouring them out to songs that everybody can sing, but few can sing quite as well as Adele.
Out on Friday Nov 19 on Columbia