I’m on the commuter rail back from Boston when the clock strikes midnight on November 19. A hush falls over the conversation I’m having with my friends. “The album is out. I can’t listen to it,” one of them says. But I’m ready. I’m told that’s because I’m much more even-keeled than the rest of my friends—one album won’t ruin me emotionally—but I think it’s more a testament to my decade-long Adele obsession, and to my trust in her to draft a brilliantly diverse project of much more than signature power breakup ballads. Her music has never made me sad, no matter how minor the chords or devastating the lyrics—only introspective and inspired—and the ceremonial first listen always leaves me without words.
My friends and I agree to wait until we are back in Providence to immerse ourselves in 30 on our own. The second I walk in the door, my roommates are ready to press play. From the first breathtaking swell of strings in “Strangers by Nature” I feel transported to Oz; an impeccable ode to Judy Garland, this opening track sparkles as I open the exquisite storybook that is Adele’s fourth studio album.
The audible glimmer brings me back four Novembers ago to the shiny black ball gown Adele wore when I saw her perform live in Austin, Texas, on her 25 tour. I can hear the stardust and see the spotlight hitting the highlight on her high cheekbones. I feel the warmth radiating through my 15-year-old body after the chills that precede it, like the calm after a storm. I taste the sweetness of her sultry vibrato dancing through the arena.
I remember leaving that show completely content with the possibility that I might never see Adele live again, and that she might never release more music. Every time she disappears for a couple of years in between projects (an impressive feat for such a high-profile and beloved artist in this day and age), I respect her mystique more and more. It’s not that I wouldn’t welcome a million more Adele songs, but rather, that each and every album feels utterly complete and so rich with depth and power that it is able to satiate and inspire me for months and even years beyond its release.
Adele’s debut album, 19, was released two days before my 7th birthday, but I don’t remember its songs entering my musical vernacular until a few years later. There are tracks on that album that I still continue to discover and rediscover; as I grow older, it grows with me, and I find new meaning in her words and runs.
I more vividly remember 21’s entrance into my world. It colored my pre-teen years with vibrant memories of my friends and me belting “Rolling in the Deep” and “Set Fire to the Rain” whenever they came on the radio, one of our poor mothers behind the wheel, wishing she had earplugs.
Three years later when I began taking voice lessons, I wanted desperately to sing the songs I had been belting for so long from 21, but my voice teacher was famously an Adele gatekeeper. She despised the fact that every alto thought she could cover Adele (“VERY FEW people do Adele well,” she would say), so I kept quiet. The day she brought out sheet music for “Make You Feel My Love” was a moment of pride and triumph like no other. From then on, singing Adele’s music brought me closer to its sentiments; the notes were in range, but I spent significant time grappling with the lyrics and letting go of my bottled up emotions while singing them.
It’s strange to think that 25 was the first Adele album I consciously awaited and listened to from start to finish upon its release, the proper way to listen to an album. Even now, I still find something new each time I return to it, which is why it’s almost unfathomable that it was released six years ago.
I love that Adele has stuck with naming her albums by age–the simple numerical titles mark time going by in both her life and mine (as I’m sure is the case with many of her devoted fans). In the blink of an eye Adele is 30 (now 33), divorced with a son, and living in Los Angeles, and I’m about to turn 21. Her formulaic album titles have aided in my confrontation of each of these significant ages; as I grow older, I am able to more closely realize and empathize with the content of these albums. I am also provided with a rare opportunity to reflect upon the gaps between Adele and myself, and to philosophize what my life might look like at 25 or 30. A song like “When We Were Young,” while not entirely applicable to my life as of yet, already feels like it will fit perfectly into my narrative when I’m 25.
As Adele shared so candidly in this Rolling Stone article, 30 had everything to do with timing. If she had waited any longer to release it into the world, she wouldn’t have released it at all. That is a clear testament to how intimately linked her artistry is with her identity and life story.
An open letter to Adele’s son about her divorce from his father, I was expecting 30 to be devastating and gut-wrenching. Instead, I found it empowering and defiant. No song better encapsulates that energy than “My Little Love,” in which jazzy undertones combine with conversations captured between Adele and her son Angelo to create a dignified sense of intimacy and care.
30 feels like Adele is whispering directly into my ear. Its production is unapologetic, prioritizing authenticity over perfection at every turn. I hear her swallow, sniffle, and breathe in the middle of phrases in a way most producers and coaches would frown upon. In “To Be Loved” Adele flexes every muscle and tone that makes her Adele, but she also boasts a tremendous amount of unfiltered control—over her voice, and over her emotions—both of which take tumultuous twists and turns throughout the album. Her signature vibrato, runs, and growls give way to the sound of her voice literally breaking. “Let it be known that I tried” she sings again and again, until she physically can’t anymore. And that’s exactly the point.
After that brick wall of sound, my roommates and I are absolutely floored. We’re curled up into balls on our living room carpet, not quite sure how to move on with our evenings and our lives. And then, all of a sudden, comes another song… 30 should have ended there; that’s my one complaint. I love “Love Is A Game,” but I don’t love it last. It belongs somewhere in the middle. The Disney-esque bookends are not fitting for a story that doesn’t have a fairytale ending.
Regardless, I’ve now listened to the album four times through, and with each listen I discover fresh moments of shock and wonder. Unlike when I first become acquainted with other artists’ new projects, I am able to pick out each song easily from the first few chords. These twelve tracks are harmonious—they coexist peacefully and strengthen each other—but no one song is like any of the others. As one of my roommates put it, Adele is without a doubt the most talented artist of our generation. It’s an honor to be 13 years behind her, and to have grown up at arm's length from her current struggles, yet enveloped in the art they inspired.