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'30' is a complicated album that shows just how broad Adele's appeal is

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Adele's first album in six years, called "30," was launched with a TV interview hosted by Oprah Winfrey in which Adele said that the album's inspiration was her divorce from her husband, Simon Konecki. The interview scored higher ratings than this past year's Grammy Awards. And "30" turned out to be one of 2021's biggest sellers. Rock critic Ken Tucker says "30" is a complicated album that also demonstrates just how broad Adele's appeal is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY ON ME")

ADELE: (Singing) There ain't no gold in this river that I've been washing my hands in forever. I know there is hope in these waters, but I can't bring myself to swim when I am drowning in this silence. Baby, let me in. Go easy on me...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The stark voice and piano arrangement of "Easy On Me," the first single from Adele's new album, "30," sets you up for the rest of the collection. Even when there are drums and more elaborate backing on the rest of the material here, Adele is still asking someone - her audience, her lover, her son - to take it easy on her. She's been through enough. And she's not only not afraid to admit her weakness and exhaustion; she's ready to make a big, strong album about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRY YOUR HEART OUT")

ADELE: (Singing) Cry your heart out. It'll clean your face. When you're in doubt, go at your own pace. When I walk in a room, I'm invisible. I feel like a ghost. All my friends keep on telling me that this feeling won't last. I can't get no relief. I'm so tired of myself. I swear I'm dead in the eyes. I have nothing to feel no more. I can't even cry.

TUCKER: That's "Cry Your Heart Out," on which Adele's distorted vocals provide her own opening chorus, after which the song settles into a Motown soul groove that compares favorably to The Marvelettes or Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. It's a song that performs that great pop music trick - a thrilling, exhilarating song about being absolutely miserable. Adele has said this entire album is about - and I quote - "divorce, babe, divorce."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY LITTLE LOVE")

ADELE: (Singing) My little love, I see your eyes, wide and like an ocean, when you look at me. So full of my emotions. I'm finding it hard to be here, sincerely. I know you feel lost. It's my fault completely.

Tell me you love me.

ANGELO ADKINS: I love you a million percent.

ADELE: (Singing) I don't recognize...

TUCKER: That's "My Little Love," a song written for and with the slightly unnerving participation of her 9-year-old son, Angelo. Further on in the song, Adele uses snippets of conversations she recorded with Angelo about why Mommy has been so unhappy and distant lately. Anytime an exchange between parent and child about emotional reassurance centers more on reassuring the parent, it's - well, it's a little squirmy. A more pure pleasure can be found in "I Drink Wine," a six-minutes-plus tour de force. I'm going to plunge us into the middle of it, as Adele analyzes her unhappiness and tries to figure out how to snap out of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DRINK WINE")

ADELE: (Singing) Why am I obsessing about the things I can't control? Why am I seeking approval from people I don't even know? In these crazy times, I hope to find something I can cling onto 'cause I need some substance in my life, something real, something that feels true. You better believe, for you, I've cried - high tides, high tides - 'cause I want you so bad, but you can't fight fire with fire. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I hope I learn to get over myself and stop trying to be somebody else. Oh, I just want to love you.

TUCKER: Throughout this album, Adele pulls from the R&B and gospel traditions that inspired her remarkable voice and phrasing. She is a rare thing right now - an artist whose appeal cuts across genres and generations. "30" isn't a perfect album. Five of its dozen songs exceed six minutes, and those frequently go on too long. The lyrics are heavily indebted to the jargon of therapy speak, with the intrusive nature of fame and the social media age an undercurrent theme throughout. I'll be happy when Adele herself is happier. But in the meantime, what a lot of great singing there is here to enjoy.

GROSS: Our rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "30" by Adele.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR episodes you missed - like this week's interviews with Mel Brooks, who has a new memoir; Kieran Culkin, one of the stars of HBO's "Succession"; and Halle Berry, who directed and stars in the new Netflix movie "Bruised" - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH MY GOD")

ADELE: (Singing) I ain't got too much time to spare, but I'll make time for you to show much I care. Wish that I would let you break my walls, but I'm still spinning out of control from the fall. Boy, you give good love. I won't lie. It's what keeps me coming back even though I'm terrified. I know that it's wrong, but I want to have fun. Mmm, yeah. Mmm, yeah. I know that it's wrong, but I want to have fun. Mmm, yeah. Mmm, yeah. Oh, my God. I can't believe it. Out of all the people in the world... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.