One of my daughter’s colleagues at work was asked to do a task while on a mini-break, expressing some reluctance as he pulled pods out of his ears. “You’re taking me away from my Adele time,” he said, not quite kidding. When she told another friend this, instead of worrying about the young man’s work ethic, she was told: “You can’t listen to Adele at work. You need to be home so you can cry.”
Many tears are shed, some literally, on Adele’s new album, 30, which is as sculpted to perfection as the one publicity shot that had been released at the time I’m writing this. The hair, makeup, and photo shoot may have taken as long to produce as some of the tracks, which are as smooth as beach stone burnished for decades by the tides.
It’s been Adele time for the last few weeks, ever since she upstaged Peter Jackson promoting his Beatles Get Back movie on 60 Minutes with a checkmate promotion of her own: Adele introducing her new album, 30, with both a live performance, along with a sit-down interview with Oprah.
Adele names, or rather numbers, her albums by the age she is when working on the albums: 19 (2008), 21 (2011), 25 (2015); and 30, released November 19, earns its title because Adele, now 33, began working on this in 2018, when her marriage to Simon Konecki was breaking up. It’s too bad this information is so readily available on the internet, because the fact that it is called 30 might be the topic of much discussion around the bong if she were a bongwater sort of artist.
Adele, 30, album cover. Photo by Simon Emmett.
Adele is not that, of course. The blessing of a pitch-perfect, innately soulful voice able to curl up around a lyric, is grounded in a childhood fascination with Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, and in tune with the more contemporary stylings of Lauryn Hill and Beyoncé.
The purity of tone and flexibility of her instrument makes her this era’s Barbra Streisand, if Adele had been raised on show tunes. The range of her audience is also similar: Streisand might be the one artist (along with soundtracks to South Pacific and My Fair Lady) a child of the 1960s might find in his parents’ record collection. Taylor Swift’s audience may be deeper and Swift is much more prolific, but she and Adele are among the only artists that sell substantial amounts of hard CDs and vinyl in the streaming era. Demand for Adele vinyl and a dearth of manufacturing facilities has elbowed aside every other artist hoping to deliver gift LPs during the holiday season.
It’s been 10 years since all sources and comparisons were made moot by Adele’s single “Rollin’ in the Deep,” a soul shout that announced her presence the way her version of the title song for Skyfall announced the beginning of that James Bond movie in 2012. She should, and probably will, do more movie theme songs, although Bond themes are becoming more recherché than they were when Shirley Bassey, another classy British pop singer with a potent voice and wide audience comparable to Adele, made the title song of Goldfinger another landmark of British cultural dominance in 1964.
Adele is therefore critic-proof, and I am not here to bust that balloon: 30 is a very enjoyable, impeccably made record, and it is essential to note that Adele co-wrote every track. She doesn’t just turn the project over to songwriting hacks and producers, enter the studio when they are finished, wave her magic wand, and return home in her gilded carriage.
Her songs are about the challenges of a difficult life that no amount of success can spare the sensitive artist. She was born to a teenage mother and an alcoholic dad, and her preternatural artistic maturity led her into relationships with much older men. She is a mother to a nine-year-old boy, Angelo, with now former husband Konecki. Depression and weight problems are part of her public story.
The credits to new song “My Little Love” credit “voice notes” to Adele and Angelo. This is where crying time comes in. It sounds like a taped phone conversation between mother and son, and she is dumping some hard facts on the boy, if she is indeed addressing him. “I’ve had a very bad day. A bit stressed. Had a hangover.” She’s sobbing now. Crying. Snorting back tears, but they keep coming.
If you’re an older doo-wop fan, you’ll recognize the technique in “Valerie” by Jackie & the Starlites, in which the singer breaks down in tears at the end of the song. Listeners used to question how the producer of “Valerie” got Jackie to break down in tears. One does not ask the same question of Adele: they seem to flow naturally, the guilty overachieving mom consumed with work, the kid missing her, the hangover that is probably redolent of painful moments of her own childhood. It’s not easy listening, it’s queasy listening. But it sounds grounded in something real.
Aside from string orchestration credits here and there on 30, Adele co-wrote with a handful of producers and one-man-band multi-instrumentalists. Greg Kurstin is the most frequent cohort, the co-writer and producer of six of the 12 standard edition tracks. (There are three extras on the Japanese and Target stores editions.) “My Little Love,” with Chris Dave on drums and percussion, features Kurstin, as do some of the other better than average tracks, including the first single, “Easy On Me,” and “I Drink Wine.” Kurstin is one of the only musicians on these tracks, credited with a laundry list that includes bass, claps, drum programming, Hammond B3 organ, keyboard, percussion, and piano (with Chris Dave on drums), on “Oh My God.”
This often works well enough to suspend my bias for recordings made by different musicians on various instruments, with all the fallibility and search for chemistry that is required. But even with Dave on “bongos, drums, and vibraslap,” the Motown-ish “Cry Your Heart Out” cries out for a modern version of Funk Brother Benny Benjamin pounding the beat.
Adele’s monumental singing skill allows her to make this dependence on hired guns and studio-dependent sound work. In early listenings I thought about the “Versificator” in George Orwell’s 1984, (published in 1948), the machine that turned out catchy music to keep the proles distracted.
Now instead of the Versificator we have Max Martin, the human with a hit machine touch. From Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys in the 1990s to Katy Perry, Maroon 5, The Weeknd and Ariana Grande, Max Martin makes hits.
Martin and another Swedish producer, who goes by the name of Shellback, are with Adele on “Can I Get It,” although probably not really with Adele as this single three-and-a-half-minute track was recorded in three different studios, in Stockholm, London, and Los Angeles.
Yet another track was recorded with a dead man: the great jazz pianist Erroll Garner (1921 – 1977). On “All Night Parking (With Erroll Garner) Interlude,” Adele gets a co-write for creating lyrics. Joey Pecoraro gets production credit with Kurstin, and plays drums, additional piano (additional piano with Erroll Garner: that’s nervy), trumpet, and violin.
There are also three songs with Inflo: “Love is a Game,” “Hold On,” and “Woman Like Me,” aka Dean Josiah Cover, producer/instrumentalist from Adele’s native North London. He’s still pretty new. If you do a Google search for Inflo, the top result is a company with that name that “empowers accounting firms with revolutionary computing intelligence.”
I had to think about this twice, and then a third time, wondering whether this was the particular Inflo for which I was looking. My bet is that Adele will be performing with live musicians, and will sound even better, when she begins her Las Vegas 12-weekend residency (Friday and Saturday night shows) at Caesar’s Palace, scheduled to begin January 21, 2022 through April 16, 2022.
Copper’s Wayne’s Words columnist also writes Critical Conditions, the Substack newsletter, at waynerobins49.substack.com
Header image: photo by Simon Emmett.