When Adele set out to finish her new album, “30,” her record label wondered how to make it resonate with a younger crowd. Adele is a vocal powerhouse with an out-of-time sensibility, and she takes long hiatuses between albums. It has been six years since her previous record, “25,” and much has changed in the world of popular music, whose pace Adele has long been proudly out of synch with. “The conversation of TikTok came up a lot,” the singer told the radio personality Zane Lowe, in a recent interview. “They were, like, ‘We’ve really gotta make sure that these fourteen-year-olds know who you are.’ ” Adele is one of the few figures in entertainment with the authority and the gravitas to brush off such misguided suggestions, and her solution was defiantly simple. “They’ve all got moms, and they’ve definitely been listening to my music, these fourteen-year-olds,” she told the label.
One reductive description that has been used to characterize Adele’s music and her cultural imprint is that she is “for moms.” Since her career took off, in 2011, with her sophomore album, “21,” a potent breakup record that gradually became canon, Adele’s contemporary take on soul, blues, and gospel has been appreciated as a monument to tradition. Strictly concerned with matters of the heart and committed to the unshowy principles of songwriting and musicianship, she’s a modern star who feels eternal, and also maternal—reliable, steady, and nurturing. She was only a teen-ager when she broke out, but womanly dignity was the bedrock of her work from the get-go.
And yet to sum up Adele’s music as “for moms” is to understate just how wide-reaching her impact has been. Adele is not only the highest-selling pop star in history but also the most institutionally acclaimed. She makes music that everyone can feel good about, in particular the voters of the Recording Academy, who have given her fifteen Grammy Awards over the years, most of them in major categories. Even if you don’t seek out Adele’s music, you absorb most of it; her catalogue of thundering torch songs has become part of the atmosphere. Adele does not participate in most customs of contemporary celebrity, and often recedes from the public eye, leaving only the songs behind. These songs are missives from her personal experiences with love and heartbreak, but they are designed to be universal. At times, it feels as if her music were a utility that belongs to everyone and no one, like electricity or running water.
“30,” which was released earlier this month, is the first record that sounds as if it belonged to her alone. Born Adele Adkins—although she is so deserving of a mononym that to see her surname in print is disconcerting—and raised mostly in North London, she studied at the same performing-arts academy that Amy Winehouse had dropped out of, several years before. Like Winehouse, and like many other British women in her wake, Adele was primarily interested in the traditions of Black American music, including blues, Motown, roots, and gospel. But she also had a knack for modern pop balladry, and the vocal talent to execute it. Adele’s catalogue is a longitudinal study of her life, each album focussed on a specific age. Her début recording, “19,” was a scattered and plucky but accomplished musical portfolio of sorts. Its smash follow-up, “21,” zeroed in on a particularly tumultuous breakup, harnessing and refining Adele’s sense of scorn. “She is half your age, but I’m guessing that’s the reason that you strayed,” she spewed on “Rumour Has It.”