Adele writes and sings female rites of passage: 19 was the teen experience; 21 the transition to adulthood; 25 relationships. Now, 30 reveals the pain of letting go.
Adele’s singing is imperfect perfection. As described by Amanda Petrusich in the New Yorker, “her voice is not a crystal stream. It is a gust of wind that’s picked up some grit.”
Adele’s songs can gut-punch, and this new album intends for the audience to feel. Her music is a combination of soul and blues colours, deeply personal lyrics and heartfelt vocalism valuing the text foremost in her raw and expressive voice.
She crafts with relatively simple chordal structures, and her sound has danger in it: in the muscling and widening in her chest voice, the audible pop as she moves between registers of chest and head.
This affect is deeply moving.
A changing voice
Most pop songs are written in the tenor range, making them hard for other voice types to sing. As a mezzo-soprano, Adele’s songs sit in a range that suits most listeners, singing along. Adele can mix her chest voice up quite high (E5, 10 notes above middle C) but she is not taken to the range extremes of early Mariah or Celine.
The middle of Adele’s voice is soulful, rich and powerful, occasionally with an edgy tone colour. She has the ability to create a breathy, fragile head voice, but can also take her chest up high and create a strong and powerful effect. In these high notes, Adele has been known to take on a quality of “vocal fry”, embodying pain.
The pressure applied to the vocal folds in taking the chest voice up high can lead to danger. No doubt two throat surgeries would have given Adele pause. On 30, she uses her floaty head voice sound more than on previous albums. This gives her the possibility of more vocal colours, and can help to protect her from vocal problems in the future.
Because of this, 30 contains a number of tumbling strains (falling phrases, like sighing) that sound more like melodious expressions than cries. She allows the flip into the lighter head voice more often, and then tumbles back down into the chest without added pressure, as in Easy On Me.
It is almost as if the more careful approach to her voice matches the aftermath of the damage of divorce, and of working under pressure since she was 18. Adele’s voice has changed. In close-up on the mic, she is more vulnerable now than she was as a teenager.
A brave album
Voices change as people change, and this iteration of Adele sits lower. She is more powerful and grounded – and yet more fragile.
There are nods to Amy Winehouse, Erroll Garner, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye on this album. Her lyrics are positioned as the “knowing now”, looking back over the lessons she has learnt in the six years since her last album.
To Be Loved is an aching testimonial, posted on youtube almost as a rehearsal on a couch.
In Hold On, Adele is close to the mic, leaning into the imperfections, twists and turns of her instrument, and her life.
As she said to Oprah, “I don’t have to expect someone else to give me stability. I can also be stable for myself and be a solid house that doesn’t blow over in a storm.”
She only lets us in after her house is sorted. In I Drink Wine, she has already changed: “Sometimes the road less travelled is the road best left behind”.
Delivering this album live would require bravery. My Little Love begins with a turn-of-the-millenia rhythm and blues vibe. Every instrument is heavily produced and filtered. Yet the song becomes increasingly painful to listen to as Adele samples voice recordings of her conversations with her son.
These conversations are achingly introspective, and her voicemail message at the end of the song, where she talks about her struggles with anxiety, is peak confessional.
The two guitar-based pop songs are recorded up close, showing bite and dirt in her voice. Women Like Me is up tempo, sitting low in Adele’s range. Can I Get It has a plucked and unplugged feel, with whistling adding a retro touch.
Cry Your Heart Out begins with heavily engineered harmonies, all voiced by Adele. The notes sound bent, as the sound engineer manipulates the pitch in the studio. Likewise, Oh My God heavily manipulates Adele’s voice, this time in a pop dance mix, taking her sound away from soul and the blues.
These two tracks show her stylistic versatility: she values quality music and storytelling above all.
In more retrospection, Love is a Game could be the theme to a Bond film, the strings and expansive colours belong in the 1960s. Strangers by Nature could be a rediscovered jazz standard, with floated head voice and romantic lyrics.
My favourite song of the album, All Night Parking, centres around a light and floaty sampled jazz piano from Erroll Garner, composer of the 1954 jazz standard Misty. Adele’s light touch vocals on the top line here shimmer and flirt and the programmed percussion is subtle. The vinyl feel from the crackling, breathy ambience is a stylish recreation of a past era.
Throughout this album, we not only get a glimpse of Adele’s recent past, but her broad definition of soul music, too. 30 is an intimate studio album exploring the rite of passage of motherhood and love-loss through an authentic, fragile and powerfully emotive voice.
Authors: Narelle Yeo, Senior Lecturer in Voice and Stagecraft, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney