Unlike Adele’s hit single ‘Rolling in the Deep’, 30 shouldn’t be called rock music. However, like all music, it’s a work of art. The album is unusual in some ways, but often stays in territory familiar to those who know previous singles like ‘Hello’. Adele’s extraordinary vocals are complimented by a range of other musical voices, including subtle but effective bass guitar, lush strings and a range of backing vocals. 30 is very much a collaborative effort, with a number of producers and others lending a helping hand. For a full list of credits, click here.
‘Strangers By Nature’ is a beautifully compelling opener featuring both Rhodes and Mellotron. Its fine first line, “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart”, one of the album’s few great metaphors, makes the listener sit up and take note. The outro displays vocals reminiscent of James Blake’s album The Colour In Anything.
‘Easy On Me’, the album’s lead single, is a fine demonstration of Adele’s skills as a singer, and features excellent piano-playing by producer Greg Kurstin. The combination of brilliant vocals and piano places the song in the tradition of other Adele hits like ‘Someone Like You’ and early single ‘Hometown Glory’. ‘Easy On Me’ also earns praise because it is concise. Overall, it’s a superb piece of pop music.
‘My Little Love’, which is written as if Adele is speaking to her child, is enhanced by snippets of spoken conversation between the two people. The song’s elements of sampled speech show Adele’s emotions in a much more straight-forward way than could be achieved through lyrics. This mixture of sung and plain-spoken words is a seldom used technique within pop music which pays dividends. This song’s instrumental accompaniment is arguably the best on the album, and wouldn’t look out of place on an especially well-adorned hip-hop or classic soul record.
‘Cry Your Heart Out’ features a strangely pitched and catchy chorus. The chords and drums are upbeat and almost danceable despite the song’s sad content. These elements prevent the track from becoming too depressing or over-the-top. It’s reminiscent of Bob Marley and the Wailers, despite not obviously being a reggae song.
‘Oh My God’ is one of the album’s weaker tracks. Twice during the pre-chorus, Adele repeatedly sings “Mm, yeah”, and this reviewer can’t help but wonder, is that the best the songwriters (in this case Adele and Greg Kurstin) can come up with to fill the silence? However, it’s not all bad. Its groovy, swinging drums are reminiscent of Rihanna’s ‘Pon De Replay’. The song is improved by its catchiness and the unusual rhythm or cadence for its singing, just one element that makes it the strangest track on 30.
‘Can I Get It’ is the first song here to showcase guitar. It’s probably the most commercial song on the album, complete with a whistled hook. It’s the closest 30 comes to pop/rock. The next track, ‘I Drink Wine’, seemed on first listen to be the best song on the album, powerful and profound in a direct kind of way. It ends with a great organ solo, perhaps the only solo of note on the album.
‘All Night Parking (with Erroll Garner) Interlude’ has an instrumental with a hip-hop feel, thanks partly to its drums, and features piano from Erroll Garner. The song’s lyrics speak about falling in love, serving as a welcome relief on what one listener known to this writer described as a “dreary” and “exhausting” album. ‘Woman Like Me’ displays a mournful and soulful guitar line (performed by the song’s producer, Inflo) while Adele’s vocals are appropriately restrained in comparison to some other tracks on 30.
‘Hold On’ contains some of the best lyrics on the album, showing Adele at her most open, although openness is definitely not is short supply on 30. Examples of particularly striking lyrics include: “Right now, I truly hate being me / Every day feels like the road I’m on / Might just open up and swallow me whole”. The instrumental accompaniment of ‘Hold On’ is arguably too simple for too long a time, as is that of ‘To Be Loved’, despite the latter song’s great introduction. Yes, less can sometimes be more, but on those two songs the lack of things going on makes the music pretty dull.
‘Love Is A Game’ is quite strong as a pop song, although this writer wonders how strong a pop song can be if it suffers from over-repetition of its chorus. It deals with the album’s biggest overarching issue: the songwriter thinks “love is a game for fools” and yet is still “falling” in love. Lyrical highlights include: “My heart speaks in puzzle and codes I’ve been trying my whole life to solve”. The relatively expansive song’s effective use of dynamics, something there should be more of on the album, is another positive.
If 30 had to be rated out of five, it would deserve four stars. By pop standards, it’s quite uneasy listening at times, as Adele tends to hammer a point home, with passionate singing, repetitive song structures and tracks that run over the six-minute mark on several occasions. Its lyrics are arguably samey in terms of themes, but there is some variation in mood, including welcome positivity on ‘Hold On’, and the words are often expressed really well.
There’s also diversity in terms of instruments and styles, though not as much as there could be. In the end, the quality of lyrics and compositions shine through most of the songs, and even the weaker tracks aren’t as bad as they could be.