Adele is back, and much like the wine in her new song “I Drink Wine,” she has only gotten better with age. Adele’s “30” is the fourth studio album from the international recording superstar, and much like in her previous works, she grapples with the frustrations of love and heartbreak. After all, songs about lost love helped make Adele famous in the first place. When “21” came out in 2011, Adele’s jazzy and angry sound was revolutionary and full of youthful energy. Yet when “25” came out in 2015, that revolutionary sound turned formulaic and repetitive, sounding as if Adele had stayed in her “21” era for four years. Any critiques of formula, however, have been left behind with what is now the most mature, polished and narratively sound album in Adele’s catalog.

Any expectations for “30” are thrown out of the window from the first lyric listeners hear on the opening track, “Strangers By Nature”: “I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart / For all of my lovers in the present and in the dark.” Gone are the days of calling “Hello” to a former lover to get them back or feeble attempts at moving on in tracks like “Set Fire to the Rain.” Adele, now a single mother off the back of her divorce from Simon Konecki, has developed her music into a solemn reflection on love. This genuine low-key reflection stays true throughout the entire work. No track better reflects how real Adele comes across here than “I Drink Wine,” which shows Adele meditating on a short fling that simply didn’t work. There is no blame thrown but simply lessons learned and paths to improve for the future.

Perhaps what Adele is best known for is the breakup song—a sharp, deep-cutting track where Adele lets out her feelings in the most poignant way possible. The breakup track of “30,” however, once more diverts from Adele’s past work as a stripped-down relationship deep dive. “Woman Like Me” is in many ways a eulogy. Not only is it a verbal autopsy of her failed marriage, but it is the central indicator that Adele has truly broken away from her past outlook on relationships. With lyrics like “But lovin’ you was a breakthrough / I saw what my heart can really do / Now some other man will get the love I have for you,” Adele takes an agency and control that wouldn’t have been possible on previous albums. This then creates strong feelings of empowerment and individual strength for the listener, which only boosts the track.

Adele’s reflection continues to build into the final three tracks of “30.” After the mostly subdued first nine tracks that highlighted Adele’s ability to convey complex emotions through intelligent, genuine lyrics, “Hold On” and “To Be Loved” see Adele finally let her powerful vocals take over and create a memorable climax to what was already a raw, impactful album. As her vocals swell to enormous heights, in “To Be Loved” Adele proclaims, “I’ll stand still and let the storm pass by / Keep my heart safe till the time feels right.” After all she has been through with love in the past six years, Adele shows the main moral of the album: true, healthy love comes from experience, and the best love may come to those who wait. It is a moral tied together by “Love Is A Game,” the final track on the album, which completes the narrative of how love can be brief and painful, but we still play like fools.

Now, for as engaging as it is, “30” is not a perfect album. The main imperfection for me was “My Little Love,” a disappointingly rudimentary track that intercuts a conversation between Adele and her son with a really simple lyric. I found that this track seemed like it was trying way too hard to be real, and with those conversation intercuts, it felt more like reality television than an Adele ballad.

Aside from that one track, however, “30” is one of the most complete albums of 2021, a landmark work for Adele and an album you must hear as soon as you can.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars