On her recent prime-time television special, Adele spoke about confessions and boundaries. “There were moments when I was writing the record, or I would listen back to something and be like, ‘That might be a bit too private,’” she told Oprah Winfrey. And, yet, listening to the song My Little Love, which is an audio home-movie, therapy session and public exposition of her young son all wrapped into a tear-jerking six and a half minutes, one must wonder what it is Adele could possibly be holding back.
The song is off 30, the singer’s immaculate new album and world-class unburdening of a heart. On My Little Love, we hear diaries recorded by Adele at the suggestion of her therapist. “I’m having a bad day,” she says, “I’m having a very anxious day.” Elsewhere, we hear conversations between the singer and her young son that are either priceless or too cute by half, but definitely catnip for the soccer-mom set.
We listen to Adele for her smoke-and mahogany mezzo-soprano though, not her iPhone notes to self. When she sings “I‘m holdin’ on,” her back-up singers qualify it, “Barely.” When she admits, “Mama’s got a lot to learn,” the singers commiserate, “It’s heavy.”
Back-up singers never lie. They’re there for support, but they keep it real. (On Theme from Shaft, the ladies told Isaac Hayes, “Shut your mouth.”) Adele is a single mother and fresh off divorce – it’s heavy. As she puts it herself on My Little Love: “Mummy’s been having a lot of big feelings recently.”
Born 33 years ago, Adele Laurie Blue Adkins names her albums for the age she happened to be when the songs were written. Her 2008 debut album 19 won her Grammys for best new artist and the single Chasing Pavements. Her follow-ups include 21, 25 and, now, 30.
Barbra Streisand, back in 1963, explained why she called her second album The Second Barbra Streisand Album. “Why should I give it some fancy name that no one remembers anyway?” she cracked.
Adele is often compared to Streisand, and for the life of me I’ve never known why. Neither their voices nor their styles are alike. Streisand is an interpreter of showtunes and pop standards; Adele is a confessional singer-songwriter in favour of Motown and blues. The funny lady sings Cry Me a River; on 30, Adele sings Cry Your Heart Out.
The latter is a playful, crisp clap-happy R&B number co-written by Adele’s go-to collaborator Greg Kurstin. On her television special, Adele mostly stuck to the ballads when it came to the songs of 30 she premiered. Tragedians are allowed to dance, though. Ergo, the up-tempo Cry Your Heart Out.
On the other hand, Strangers by Nature, the album’s lush lead track, sounds like something from the Eisenhower era – all strings, keys and twinkles. “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart,” Adele croons, “for all of my lovers in the present and in the dark.” It’s more fun than that sounds. Sinatra would approve, and so do I.
Although there are some weepers on what she calls her “divorce album,” Adele isn’t all wallow. Can I Get It, produced by Sweden song-makers Shellback and Max Martin is contemporary pop – strummed, rhythmic and snappy – for the kids.
The sexy All Night Parking is for adults, as is I Drink Wine, a gospelled ballad that asks life-skills questions in sophisticated ways. The single Easy on Me asks for forgiveness. The chorus of Oh My God suggests that Adele has been listening to Moby’s Play on repeat. And when she sings, “I want to have fun,” it sounds like good times are right around the corner.
This album doesn’t offer anything as striking as Skyfall or Rumour Has It. She’s not reinventing herself – 30 might be the new 25, but it’s not the new Adele. What it is, is a beautifully produced, introspective and revealing record. And if it’s not so mind-blowing to make you forever remember where you were when you first heard it, you’ll certainly know where Adele was when she made it.
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