Adele’s Sneakily Spiritual Soul Music

Sarah Welch-Larson

At first listen, 30 feels divorced from any spirituality at all.

Adele has always sung truthfully about her emotions—especially the painful ones that come before and after a breakup—and this album is no different. She’s even referred to it as her “divorce” album. But the creative waters of 30, like Adele’s famed voice, run deep and clear, informed as they are by the depth of her experience as she grows older. Even though the subject matter isn’t explicitly spiritual, Adele’s newest album draws from a rich tradition of soul and gospel music, as well as from the wisdom literature of the Bible.

30 covers topics like loneliness, anxiety, motherhood, and finding new love, all with language that is rooted in the material world: skin that feels like paper, flowers in a cemetery, flowing rivers, and dusty roads. The songs continually reference the physical world in metaphors for Adele’s emotional state. The singer refers to herself as sitting in the rain of a storm she created herself after leaving someone (“Cry Your Heart Out”) and as having a heart that pounds “like thunder” when she thinks about the possibility of jumping into another relationship (“Can I Get It”). On “To Be Loved,” she talks about building a house for love, “painting walls with all my secret tears / filling rooms with all my hopes and fears.”

Even the production of the album supports this physical imagery. The songs “My Little Love” and “I Drink Wine” include spoken-word segments that echo scratchily, as though captured on a home recording instead of in a studio. The intro to “All Night Parking” and the chorus of “Cry Your Heart Out” each include the distinctive hiss and pop of vinyl spinning on a record player. The lead single, “Easy On Me,” features a piano that echoes slightly, as if it is the only object in a large room. The imagery and the album’s sonic landscape reinforce the focus on the material world: how it feels to live, alone and lonely, as a person in a specific time and place.

Adele’s physical-world metaphors for the emotions surrounding love (and the lack of it) are a natural fit for the genre. Adele sings soul music, which grew out of the African-American musical traditions of gospel, rhythm & blues, and jazz. Soul is sometimes considered the “secular” side of gospel music, with lyrics that aren’t meant to be sung in church services, but that express the deepest longings of the heart all the same. Soul borrows the powerful vocals and imagery of gospel and the rhythms of blues, elevating concerns that could be considered “worldly” to the same level as spiritual ones.

30, like other soul albums before it, alludes to spiritual truths without explicitly drawing a connection between scripture and its own lyrics. But the connections are there, if the listener has ears to hear them.

Soul elevates concerns that could be considered “worldly” to the same level as spiritual ones.

Adele sings about washing in the river—a common theme in gospel songs—then turns the metaphor around and talks about drowning in her own sorrow, as well as in grace. Her songs include language that recalls biblical language and imagery. “Cry Your Heart Out" mentions the singer's skin being "paper thin" as part of a list of heartbroken complaints that would fit in with the raw litany of Psalm 38."I Drink Wine" talks about the rhythms of life, from joy in childhood to jaded adulthood, and includes a verse about dissatisfaction with those rhythms. When Adele sings, “They say to play hard, you work hard, find balance in the sacrifice / And yet I don’t know anybody who is truly satisfied,” she is echoing Ecclesiastes. Songs across the entire album, from “My Little Love” to “Hold On” to “Oh My God,” express vulnerability and loneliness. Simultaneously affirming that she wants to hold on and endure while admitting that she doesn’t even like herself, Adele is in sync with the psalms of David.

Each of the songs on 30—and the passages of scripture to which they indirectly refer—is concerned with the physical and emotional effects of living in the world. In 30, the physical metaphors express exactly what it feels like to fall in and out of love, with someone else or with yourself. The Bible uses the physical world as a metaphor for spiritual truths in a more expansive way: illness can be a metaphor for sorrow before the Lord, while open fields represent peace and roaring seas represent turmoil.

The wisdom literature of the Bible is just as concerned with the physical world as it is with the heart and the head. God created the world and called it good. The psalmists talk about God’s goodness made manifest in the world just as much as they talk about the physical aches and pains of sorrow and sin. Adele’s 30 follows suit, expressing the depth of its emotions with metaphors grounded in the physical world. It is good to feel emotions and to feel them deeply. 30 isn’t, strictly speaking, spiritually inclined, but as soul music it sings in harmony with spiritual truth.

Topics: Music