Numbers are easier to understand than music, so when we try to explain the magnificence of Adele, we tend to bombard each other with digits. She’s expected to sell this many copies within that many days; her previous album held this chart position for that many weeks; and when this many television viewers watched her chitchat with Oprah Winfrey on Sunday night, it was that many more than tuned in to the Grammys back in March. Units move and record books get rewritten. It’s as if the only way to comprehend Adele’s significance is through some breathless math problem involving money, people and time.
The 33-year-old superstar has taken a much more orderly approach to numbers throughout her recording career, naming each of her albums after a significant age in her life: “19,” “21,” “25″ and now, after a six-year break, “30.” The idea is simple enough - music is a product of human experience - and she’s loyal to it. Filling those media-cycle chasms with real life has become a necessary part of her creative process. Plenty of hyper-prolific pop stars have figured out how to transpose their humanity into hits in real time, but Adele knows she’s offering something else.
With “30,” she’s offering an emotive before-and-after account of her March divorce - which means the hype machine has spent months preparing us to be plunged into grief’s deepest depths. But nah. These songs are more than mere Kleenex depleter. They have quirks - hiccups of confusion, unexpected flares of TMI, and a few left turns into what feels something like fun. “[I] always make a mess of everything,” Adele sings deep in the album’s tracklist, perhaps quietly aware that the rest of her songs don’t need to be on perpetual mop duty. Maybe catharsis shouldn’t be so neat. Maybe a mess needs a witness.
But on the whole, “30″ is far from untidy, so to hear its ripples and ruptures, you’ll need to pay close attention to how Adele’s words become sounds. Her lyrics are vulnerable but uncomplicated, as raw as journal jottings, or as slippery half-remembered inspirational quotes that floated out of the Internet and into the forefront of her consciousness. When they all get mashed together in service of an unbendable melody, they get really interesting - like inside the enchanted bossa nova fog of “Woman Like Me,” where Adele delivers a lumpy sequence of thoughts with preposterous finesse: “Consistency is the gift to give for free, and it is key to ever keep, to ever keep a woman like me.” Try as she might, she can’t get those 22 words to fully melt into the song’s smoothness, which feels weird and exciting, as if she’s feeling out the edge of her abilities.
When syllables aren’t clotting, metaphors are mixing. The opening verse of the album’s lead single, “Easy on Me,” involves a river where misguided souls pan for gold, but our narrator is performing ablutions in it, and when she starts to get worried about drowning, she isn’t afraid of water, she’s afraid of silence. Before we can figure out where anyone’s standing in this quiet wetness, the refrain comes flooding. “Go easy on me, baby,” Adele sings, painstakingly expanding the word “easy” into eight distinct parts. And so a piano ballad begins to resemble a power ballad, not unlike some distinguished descendant of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” only sung with more power.
Adele’s voice has never sounded better. You can believe the hype in that department. She approaches this music with supreme concentration, giving every word her complete attention, and without ever squeezing the life out of the song. She doesn’t have the superpower of making her so-so lyrics seem profound, but she does have the ability to make every last breath sent from her airways sound completely sincere.
She keeps the sweetest songs from getting overbaked, too. “All Night Parking” is the best of the fun ones - a smitten love note in which a glittery sample of late jazz hero Errol Garner playing the piano gets draped over a choppy 21st century trap beat. Whoever’s singing those playfully, pinched, Erykah Badu-ish backup vocals - Adele? - they sound like they’re having a blast.
On the opposite side of the mood spectrum is “My Little Love,” a strangely grooving meditation on the paranoia of parenthood. “I don’t recognize myself in the coldness of the daylight,” she sings to her young son, seemingly apologizing for the shortcomings that all parents feel. Oddly, the song keeps getting interrupted by voice notes that Adele seems to have recorded on her phone - snippets of conversation with her son that feel like oversharing. “Mommy’s been having a lot of big feelings recently,” Adele says in one clip. “I feel a bit confused . . . like I don’t really know what I’m doing.”
If her art is truly coming from a confused place these days, she tries to clarify things in a traditionally Adele way during “To Be Loved,” a voice-and-piano slow-burner where she asserts that “I’ll never learn if I never leap.” As the music slowly generates its solemn momentum, Adele becomes sympathetic in two ways: First, as a wounded soul trying to pick herself back up; second, as one of the most famous voices alive performing the dazzling sadness that’s expected of her.
The world wants a new Adele album to be very good and very sad, but with “30,” sorrow might be the least essential component of what makes it good. As a singer, Adele remains entirely clear about her greater proposition: She has a voice that can do pretty much anything, but she will only apply it to things that are true to her experience. And while “30″ doesn’t hide any of its “big feelings,” it’s the smaller ones that are the most interesting. Might this colossal voice spend her near-future paying closer attention to the strangeness of existence and all of the microtonal emotions that go with it? Sit back, cross your fingers and start counting the years.