Since 2008, Adele has allowed listeners to peek into her world, carrying them through the major stages of her life as a shoulder to cry on and a relatable presence. With her fourth set, 30, she grants more access than ever before, detailing one of her most painful seasons with poise and grace. Charting the aftermath of her 2019 divorce, 30 is not a fiery breakup album. Rather, focusing on acceptance, growth, and owning her mistakes, she's created a time capsule for her son, Angelo, to understand what his mother was going through at this pivotal time. After the curtains part on the dramatic, Judy Garland-inspired overture "Strangers by Nature," she addresses the split with "Easy on Me," redirecting her focus as a plea for patience and understanding from her son. "My Little Love" interpolates their intimate conversations atop smoky R&B production that echoes early-2000s Alicia Keys. When she confesses, "Mummy's been having a lot of big feelings lately," it's a prelude to the heartbreak that closes the song, where a crying Adele admits she's lonely and scared. Hearing the superstar in such an unguarded human state might be jarring, but it's oddly reassuring to witness these levels of vulnerability and candor: Adele feels the same pain and she's fumbling along the way to happiness just like the rest of us.
As 30 unfolds, she takes tentative steps back onto the market, having the wrong kind of "fun" on the standout "Oh My God," a hit in the making that rides an infectious beat peppered with handclaps and whistles. Wading deeper into the dating pool with the stomping Max Martin and Shellback-penned "Can I Get It," she searches for a real love connection, which leads to "All Night Parking," a lovelorn gem about budding romance. Those fresh thrills don't last long, as the delicious kiss-off "Woman Like Me" knocks the unnamed Romeo down a few pegs for being too lazy, whiny, and complacent for a powerhouse like Ms. Adkins. Later, on the triumphant "Hold On," a choir of friends empowers a faltering Adele, reminding her that, "You are still strong/Love will soon come." Tough realizations and soul-searching land on the Elton John-influenced piano ballad "I Drink Wine" and the showstopping "To Be Loved," a shiver-inducing showcase of vocal acrobatics that stands tall alongside the best performances by Whitney, Mariah, and Celine. As the credits roll on "Love Is a Game," lush strings and a pensive organ usher in a nostalgic Motown girl group timelessness, where Adele admits, "Love is a game for fools to play," picking up the pieces and taking responsibility for her actions. Meeting titanic expectations, this linear journey of the heart is Adele's most cohesive statement to date, pairing her inimitable voice with a dozen engrossing vignettes, reminding us that all we can do is keep trying.