Adele’s new album, “30,” is about the dissolution of her marriage, and also the flickers of romantic renewal that have subsequently given her hope. But the most lively parts, the most vivid moments, are the darkest ones. The hollow pain of heartbreak activates something in her — the more self-lacerating she gets, the more sumptuous her singing becomes.
“Listen, I know how low I can go, I give as good as I get/You get the brunt of it all ’cause you’re all I’ve got left,” she sings on “I Drink Wine,” a six-plus-minute bloodletting, and one of the album’s sturdiest vocal performances. That Adele is a powerhouse singer is no longer a revelation. But the nimble intensity she shows off on “30” is potent, a spark of something new.
We are in a season of emotional bruises: Summer Walker’s casually devastating “Still Over It,” her third album, just had its debut at the top of the Billboard 200, and “30” is No. 1 on the latest chart. (Sandwiched in between is Taylor Swift’s rerecording, with bonus tracks, of her tunefully caustic “Red.”) It’s tough to say what stage of pandemic art we’ve arrived at, but albums that sound a lot like deep exhales feel particularly resonant right now.
“Still Over It” and “30” share the aura of having put up with something for so long that it broke you, and then gave you the callus upon which you built anew. They are small and relatively intimate, with production that behaves often like a mere suggestion. Large swaths of both are given over to, in essence, talk-singing, a kind of fireside chat of emotional exhaustion. Aggrievance still lingers on the tongue.
“Still Over It” is Walker’s second excellent album in a row and very much in the spirit of the great Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans albums of the mid-to-late 1990s. It’s about her now-dissolved relationship with the producer London on da Track, the father of her child and, paradoxically, a producer on several of the album’s songs.
Walker trains in on him with unwavering disdain. “Long as you got your cars and toys to drive/I should’ve known I couldn’t get your time,” she sings on the bracing “Session 33.” On “Throw It Away,” she distills the relationship’s collapse into an incredible little quatrain: “We reached a ceiling/I had a feeling/From the beginning/Must be the ending.”
Walker is an astutely effective singer, but not because of power — rather, she often sounds as if she’s holding back, or a little tired. The gap between the thickness of her feeling and her ever-so-slightly distracted vocals is gutting. It’s the sound of two eyes rolling.
There is an outside antagonist in Walker’s narrative, too, another woman who interfered with her relationship. She addresses her directly on the taunting album opener “Bitter”: “Just because you let him smash, that don’t mean he ever knew you/Just ’ cause y’all got a past, that don’t mean you got a future.” (Earlier this year, Walker engaged in some social media back and forth with her ex and some of the women in his life; Walker doesn’t generally do interviews, so this was her most publicly transparent moment outside her music.)
In some places on “30,” Adele points fingers, too, especially on “Woman Like Me”: “It is so sad a man like you could be so lazy,” she shrugs. But for the most part, “30” is a catalog of the ways in which Adele herself was the obstacle. “Please stop calling me, it’s exhausting, there’s really nothing left to say/I created this storm, it’s only fair I have to sit in its rain,” she practically chirps on “Cry Your Heart Out.”
Sometimes in the past, Adele has used the sheer scale of her voice to connote emotional import, but “30,” full of resilient fatigue, is her most vocally agile album. It nods to some of the great British soul performers of the recent past: Sade on “My Little Love,” Amy Winehouse on “Cry Your Heart Out” and “All Night Parking.” It also shows in the way she extracts extra shape and texture from some of her syllables — suggesting how a relationship can hang onto you even long after you’ve let it go — like a persistent limp after years of wearing uncomfortable shoes.
Where Adele leans into her signature power is in length: six of the album’s 12 songs are five minutes or longer. Many of these are the most commanding, especially “To Be Loved,” in which she wails, repeatedly, “Let it be known that I tried.”
She could be singing that to herself, or to her ex, or to the child they share. “30” also includes snippets of conversations between her and her son on “My Little Love,” in which she tries to explain to him why she and his father are no longer together. In this context, her son is both the inquisitor and the healer, the reminder of the broken past and the hope for a more stable future.
In a couple of places on “30,” she locates the root of her relationship challenges not in her ex, or in her current self, but in how she was raised — or rather, wasn’t. “I was still a child/Didn’t get the chance to/Feel the world around me,” she moans on “Easy on Me”
Like “30,” Walker’s album emphasizes the cyclical nature of romantic disappointment by introducing other voices. “Still Over It” features a small congregation — there is conspiratorial encouragement from Cardi B at the beginning of the album; been-there-hated-that acclamation from SZA and Ari Lennox; and a closing anointment from Ciara. It is a gathering of those who have endured, and a reminder that Walker’s hurt isn’t just her own — it belongs to the world. As does Adele’s. As does everyone else’s.