Las Vegas is a comfortable place to land for pop stars. It’s where you go to bask in the validation of a job well done, to rest on a solid legacy at a point where the future may have become less certain and any tentative steps into it may harm that legacy. It seemed, for a while, a safe harbour for Britney Spears after her troubles (until she said she was made to perform against her will); Lady Gaga and Katy Perry also set up shop in the desert after their imperial phases faded.
Adele, whose three-month Caesars Palace residency begins this weekend, has no need for this lucrative safety net – her latest, 30, was the biggest album of 2021 with just six weeks on sale. She’s playing there for practical reasons: she hates touring and wants to be close to her son at home in Los Angeles. But there is also something quietly subversive about her presence, right now, in a place synonymous with light entertainment and celebrating adult milestones. Once known for supplying comfort and artistic consistency (even complacency, perhaps), Adele made one of last year’s most confrontational albums.
Prior to 30, I had listened to Adele’s earlier records out of professional duty, decided they weren’t for me, and moved on; she is my age but felt completely alien from our times. Her third album, 25, made me quite uneasy – here was a young mum, apparently in a solid relationship, revisiting juvenile heartbreak again. Hearing her reanimate that corpse felt to me like another young female artist getting trapped in purgatory – anxiety, whether hers or the label’s, that the public would never let her escape the sadness that made her name. When news broke that she was divorcing, there was an unseemly glee at the album people assumed she would write – a kintsugi masterpiece, flooding her brokenness with that golden voice. Adele may have made some predictable music in the past, but she seldom moves that way in her own life. For the first time, her music followed suit.
The album 30 is neither full of recriminations for her ex-husband nor regret; instead Adele is steadfast that she had to leave her marriage because she was unhappy, and she was certain that her commitment to personal happiness would ultimately benefit the whole family – though finding fulfilment isn’t as straightforward as simple emancipation. The album follows a linear journey through her anguish at the pain and confusion it causes their son (My Little Love), and the depression and despair that accompanies her newfound solitude (Cry Your Heart Out). But her self-worth accrues with the album’s run time – and her belief in self-sufficiency.
“All you do is complain about decisions you make,” she sings on Woman Like Me. “How can I help lift you if you refuse to activate the life that you truly want?” She’s singing to a lazy new lover who hasn’t met her expectations, but it also feels like a subtle challenge to Adele’s audience to reconsider how they see her – not as a reliable remedy during their own periods of heartache, but as a woman who took a risk to redefine happiness on her terms and forge a healthier relationship to herself – as well as to truly consider their own lives and potential for change. Critics have often justified Adele’s era-defining success by her relatability, but the daring woman on 30 is a provocation; the pop equivalent of Glennon Doyle, the self-help guru whose work made Adele feel “as if I just flew into my body for the very first time”. 30 hit me in a way I would never have expected.
Adele’s album titles – 19, 21, 25, 30 – map a direct journey through adulthood with all its attendant milestones. And as New Yorker critic Carrie Battan wrote, her “contemporary take on soul, blues and gospel has been appreciated as a monument to tradition”. 30 derails that linear path of growth and defies tradition in both senses. It is her most idiosyncratic album, still respectfully in touch with those influences, but more playful with them: the wryly processed Motown girl group harmonies on Cry Your Heart Out; the use of voice notes on My Little Love that she has said nod to Tyler, the Creator and Skepta; the boozy looseness of I Drink Wine. She finds greater power in the subtleties of vocal expressiveness than she did in sheer volume – the coy head-in-the-clouds flirtatiousness of All Night Parking, the embarrassed neediness of Can I Get It – though she makes her unparalleled vocal power into a weapon on To Be Loved, making the listener feel the weight of her decision: “Let it be known that I tried,” she bellows, strafing her vocal chords.
You wonder whether her quest for greater self-knowledge and fulfilment opened up this potential for experimentation, to venture beyond the bounds of her once-fixed musical identity as she did her roles as a wife and mother. The expansive pleasures of this album also stake a claim for the vitality of adult contemporary music, a once-powerful genre diminished by age-conscious segregation of radio formatting and the commercial assumption that parents and pop fans over the age of 35 have Bublé-steeped mush for brains. The realities of adult life and pop are seen to be incompatible: as I previously wrote about Robyn, the music industry is built on selling the kind of self-belief that only truly comes with age, yet few artists, particularly women, get to mature on their own terms.
Even Adele – the century’s biggest commercial success – had to field these concerns. In an interview with Zane Lowe, she recalled a meeting where someone at her label highlighted the importance of making sure 14-year-olds knew who she was. “I’m like, but they’ve all got mums!” Adele said. “If everyone’s making music for the TikTok, who’s making music for my generation, for my peers? I’ll do that job gladly. I’d rather cater to people that are on my level in terms of the time we’ve spent on Earth.” She rejected the idea that 12-year-olds should even listen to 30. “It’s too deep! Thirty- and 40-year-olds are all committing to themselves and doing therapy. That’s my vibe. That’s what I was doing.”
Maybe, then, Vegas is the perfect place for Adele to debut this album to the public. In front of the nearly weds and newly divorced merrymakers, here is someone who gambled on her future and won herself back.