By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Easy on Me’ is one of Adele’s most widely discussed songs. Written by Adele herself with the song’s producer Greg Kurstin, it was the lead single from Adele’s fourth studio album, 30. The single was released in 2021.
Since then, ‘Easy on Me’ has attracted lots of speculation and interpretation. What is the meaning of this slow, sorrowful ballad? The song was praised highly by numerous critics and reviewers, but its meaning requires careful close reading, and a dash of biographical context.
‘Easy on Me’: song meaning
In the song, Adele addresses her nine-year-old son, Angelo. Many of Adele’s songs have their origins in her own life, but ‘Easy on Me’ is one of her most starkly autobiographical. ‘Easy on Me’ sees the singer explaining to Angelo her recent divorce from his father, Simon Konecki, whom Adele had married in 2018 (the couple had been dating since 2011).
The song’s title, then, sees Adele imploring her young son to be ‘easy on’ her over the recent events in both their lives. Adele’s divorce from her then-husband was finalised in March 2021, eight months before ‘Easy on Me’ was released as a single.
Indeed, not only ‘Easy on Me’, but the whole of the album on which it was included, 30, is an album ‘for’ Angelos, Adele’s son. As Adele told Vogue magazine, she felt like explaining to her son why she made the difficult decision to split with his father and, as she puts it, ‘dismantle his entire life in the pursuit of my own happiness.’ She has expressed the wish that, when he’s older, he will be able to listen to the album and understand where she was coming from.
‘Easy on Me’: lyrics
The chorus to the song sees Adele beseeching her son to go easy on her, to be merciful and sympathetic when judging her when he’s older and grown-up himself. She asserts that she was ‘still a child’ when everything happened, yet to attain full emotional maturity. Fame often has this effect: it sweeps the famous person up and they have no time to come down to earth again.
Also in the chorus, Adele remarks that she had no time to ‘feel the world’ around her, or to make the right choices. Things happened too quickly, perhaps, and without the ability to get oneself grounded before decisions were made.
In the song’s verses, she offers an insight into how she’s been feeling as she made the difficult decision to divorce her husband. It’s like panning for gold in a river that will never deliver the rare and precious joy she seeks; she’s simply washing her hands in it without ever finding the prize she seeks.
This image is inspired: hand-washing also carries a secondary meaning of wanting to be rid of one’s responsibilities, to ‘wash one’s hands’ of something, but the singer knows she cannot do that in this case. It immediately establishes a tension between her own needs and those of another person.
Similarly, washing those hands in this river will not make them any cleaner, or help her to find the pure happiness she seeks.
But there is hope in the waters, if she can swim to somewhere more profitable and conducive to her needs. Inactivity (a failure of nerve, or a total loss of ability to act?) keeps her unable to swim to where she needs to be, however. Keeping all these feelings to herself, and sitting in silence, is ‘drowning’ her.
The second verse of the song broadens out the focus to consider both herself and her (ex-)husband. She implies that things will never change if they remain together, because they are both too ‘stuck’ (whether out of stubbornness or a genuine inability to see how they might modify their behaviour and attitude). She tells her son that she has tried her best, even putting her son and her husband first before her own needs. But now things have to change.
‘Easy on Me’: analysis
In the last analysis, ‘Easy on Me’ is a well-balanced account of the difficulties attendant on divorce when a young child is involved. Ultimately, as the lyrics make clear, the situation is nobody’s fault: the singer was swept up by everything and, rather than making the wrong decisions per se, simply wasn’t able to choose her own path, and this has made her unhappy.
But nor is it the fault of any other party. This is partly what makes ‘Easy on Me’ one of Adele’s more powerful recent songs: the sadness that runs through the song is a result of a situation which could happen to many people who find themselves far from where they want to be. It is a song about the struggle for self-determination and happiness balanced against the need to consider the feelings and happiness of other people, including a young child.
And so ‘Easy on Me’ sees Adele maturing and developing as an artist. One of her recurring themes – lost love and heartbreak – now has another angle, since it involves a third person whose happiness is, for the time being at least, involved in and connected to her own.
You can watch the video of the song here.