Still A Child: the Lost and Lonely Youth of Adele

On 30, Adele’s first album in six years, she grapples with the fallout from her divorce, both in herself and through the lens of her son. There is an art to bring pragmatically selfish. Trying to stay together for the child or separating, the inevitability of trauma forces those involved to consider their own needs as well. The nuance of mental health for all parties involved creates a void that is only filled by the realization that the best thing to do is often the worst thing to do. The album is a loose concept based on the reconciliation and justification of her big decision, and it’s one that hits close to home for a generation speeding headlong into middle age, trying desperately to not make the mistakes of our parents.

Several times throughout her career, Adele has referenced being a child or feeling childlike. It’s almost always used as a reason for making mistakes or feigning ignorance.

Let me stay here for just one more night
Build your world around me
And pull me to the light
So I can tell you that I was wrong
I was a child then but now I’m willing to learn

“I’ll Be Waiting” (21)

Despite the yearning to be treated like a grown woman, she still goes head over heels into love in lieu of caution. It’s a refrain that’s as old as pop music, poetry, or foundational human expression, but significant in the overall arc of Adele’s music.

On 25, she grew into her sensibility and understanding of what she wants from a partner. The songs, for the most part, exist in a balance of unrequited love and holding on to fleeting moments as a child keeps a comfort toy.

The youthful ignorance as a defense mechanism was practically a main theme of that album.

Send my love to your new lover
Treat her better
We’ve gotta let go of all of our ghosts
We both know we ain’t kids no more

“Send My Love To Your New Lover” (25)

This feels like the opposite sentiment of the lyrics on “I’ll Be Waiting”. She’s acknowledging the past and who she was, but pointing out that she has grown and he needs to as well. The maturity continues on the album’s second single, “When We Were Young”, which is probably Adele at her aesthetic peak.

Let me photograph you in this light
In case it is the last time
That we might be exactly like we were
Before we realized
We were scared of getting old
It made us restless
It was just like a movie
It was just like a song

“When We Were Young” (25)

Younger people, in general, don’t worry about the frailty of life or the overwhelming existential dread that comes with growing up. There’s an earnest, saccharine beauty to belief that your whole life is still ahead of you. As years mount, so does the understanding of the world around you and with that come all of the ugly parts of being alive- debt, heartbreak, and the anxiety of never knowing the right thing to do. Being “just like a movie” or “just like a song” illustrates that whimsical view of life and love through the eyes of someone else’s art and all of the romanticized aspects of it.

25 is an album of someone maturing while wishing life was as uncomplicated as it was “a million years ago”. Age and pain make the chasm between the past and present seem wider than it really is. 30 is a bridge across that chasm, for better and worse.

“I’ll be taking flowers to the cemetery of my heart”

“Strangers By Nature” (30)

That, as you likely know already, is the first line of the album. Adele had made a point to say that this album would be darker given the overall theme, but damn is that some bleak shit. Anyway, it’s time to get sad.

The first single, released practically out of nowhere a month ago, follows the aforementioned songs in the refrain.

Go easy on me, baby
I was still a child
Didn’t get the chance to
Feel the world around me
I had no time to choose
What I chose to do
So go easy on me

Easy On Me (30)

The problem with being a child is that it isn’t a defined, black and white separation between youth and adulthood. There are thing we never grow out of, often times to our own detriment later in life. In this case, she’s falling back on blaming youthful ignorance, but it’s changed. Not only is she laying fault directly on herself, but she is laying the foundation that this is just who she is. All of the years of negotiating between her own ears to be more mature in love and its affects have been made moot.

“My Little Love” is just that. Adele even uses voice memo recordings of a conversation with her young son about her feelings to fully color in the picture. It adds an element of intimacy to the inner struggle of the moment and brings her career spanning theme into a defined second act. The childhood recklessness and unwillingness to learn from mistakes has placed her emotionally strained to impart her heavy heart onto her son. Where before she could disregard it and move on, now she needs to prevent the next generation from doing that. But how do we break the wheel?

Pragmatic selfishness. The idea that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander can sometime apply to life’s emotional sea changes.

I’m a fool, but they all think I’m blind
I’d rather be a fool than leave myself behind
I don’t have to explain myself to you
I am a grown woman and I do what I want to do

“Oh My God” (30)

Adele wants to put herself first but struggles with the perception of it. The wording used presents the façade that she doesn’t care about the thoughts of others, but people who actually don’t care, don’t have to say they don’t care. She’s saying she’s a grown woman as if that’s justification for her actions. It is, but the sentiment of these lyrics juxtaposed to the more remorseful songs on 30 swings like a pendulum between feeling free and feeling stuck.

When I was a child, every single thing could blow my mind
Soaking it all up for fun, but now I only soak up wine
They say to play hard, you work hard, find balance in the sacrifice
And yet I don’t know anybody who’s truly satisfied

“I Drink Wine” (30)

Halcyon digest once more, as Adele equates being young to being free and optimistic. Now, adrift in life’s troubles, she can only turn to her comforts and vices. The adages of prior generations are lies, and there is no true happiness found in patience or persistence. She’s seeing things more clearly, but not in a good way.

I built a house for love to grow
I was so young that it was hard to know
I’m as lost now as I was back then
Always make a mess of everything
It’s about time that I face myself
All I do is bleed into someone else
Painting walls with all my secret tears
Filling rooms with all my hopes and fears

“To Be Loved” (30)

While at face value, it seems like she’s rehashing the idea that she can blame her faults on willful, youthful ignorance, Adele is in a place where she can see the past and present in equal light. She will never have the answers she’s constantly searching for, but by the end of the song, the mere effort to try is often worth its weight.

Let it be known
That I will choose, I will lose
It’s a sacrifice, but I can’t live a lie
Let it be known
I tried

“To Be Loved” (30)

Despite the feeling of some sort of emotional maturity within her lyrics, this is still the emotional nadir Adele that we heard at the very beginning of the album. She’s crying out, hoping and praying that what she’s done is the right thing. Much like everything else we experience in life, the answers are often only seen in hindsight. Perhaps finding value in one’s own happiness, knowing full well it will harm herself and the person she loves most, will help to break that cycle of generational bearing of emotional weight that charges the next generation with that trauma.

Adele described 19, 21, and 25 as a trilogy, stating that 30 was something new. Despite the much darker, open-wound tone of the album, it feels more like a middle piece on a journey that doesn’t end with this ending. In fact all the opposite, as it feels like a large, cathartic sigh in the same vein as moving out of a home with bad memories or burning items attached to someone who doesn’t deserve your emotional debt. There is maturity forged in the war between one’s own ears. It’s liberating, as it turns out, to just have a good, old-fashioned, breakdown.

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