There are very few acts that can disappear for a whole decade before releasing a new album and still have legions of adherents keep the fire burning. Sade, with the inscrutable quality that allows them to take these artistic liberties, is one such band.
I think it’s fair to say every bona fide Sade fan has a mental list of their albums in order of greatness. The band have made it easy for us; although having a career that spans more than 25 years they are only just releasing their sixth studio album. Some aficionados prefer the smooth-Jazz influence of the groundbreaking early Sade Diamond Life/Promise period; others prefer the sparser, experimental nature of the Stronger than Pride/Love Deluxe phase.
However maybe it’s also fair to say that very few would choose Lover’s Rock as the high point in the band’s career so far. After having waited eight years since 1992’s superb Love Deluxe, Lovers Rock elicited mixed feelings from the Sade faithful. For every dizzying peak (‘Somebody Already Broke My Heart’, ‘King of Sorrow’, ‘Slave Song’) there was an underwhelming trough (‘The Sweetest Gift’, ‘All About Our Love’, ‘Flow’, ‘Immigrant’). The album saw the band play around more with folk and blues, the outcome being hit and miss.
Fast forward ten years to Soldier of Love and we find an album that in standard and sound, lies somewhere in the middle of Love Deluxe and Lovers Rock – perhaps the record Sade would have made if the gap between the two hadn’t been so long. Speculation about the direction Sade would take started in earnest with the release of the Hip Hop/R&B-friendly title track. This was a tactical move on the band’s part; ‘Soldier of Love’ would get the heads of a new generation of listener nodding whilst giving their established fanbase a little of what they have come to appreciate so much. It turns out that the single was a feint, perhaps to get the clubs and DJs on board; it bears little resemblance to anything else on this diverse album. In all other respects the trademark spacious arrangements and light-touch production remains. Sade continues to exist on that unique self-made musical plain of theirs.
Vocally, after a slight dip on Lovers Rock, Sade herself is back on top form, thankfully losing that curious nasality evident on the fifth album. Her signature phrasing remains like a faithful friend and her harmonies dissolve tastily on the tongue. Sounding as pensive and soul-stirring as ever, it’s always a pleasure to hear Ms Adu’s rich contralto/tenor do what only she can. What is more, there are several tracks on Soldier of Love to remind us of what has kept so many Sade aficionados happy for all these years. ‘Skin’ would have sat very comfortably on Love Deluxe as would have the beautifully haunting ‘Safest Hiding Place’. Both will undoubtedly soon take their position amongst Sade’s other timeless tunes, as will the delicious ‘The Moon and The Sky’, the title track and slow-burner ‘Morning Bird’.
Nevertheless, just like Lover’s Rock, where Sade’s most recent output seems to come adrift slightly is with the country and blues numbers. It’s not that these styles per se are culpable as that they’re not the best vehicles for showcasing Sade at their songwriting optimum. ‘In Another Time’ for instance and its conscientious, empowering message about overcoming the effects of unspecified abuse is conceptually admirable. However the execution borders on the bland. Time and again Sade has married profound lyrics with irresistible melodies, yet on songs such as the aforementioned and ‘Be That Easy’ they don’t quite get the chemistry right. In addition these tracks have a lead-balloon effect on the flow and continuity of Soldier of Love dragging down the overall quality. I half-wished a couple of them had been left off the record altogether; it would have been a good deal better for it.
Then there are the songs that fall somewhere in between such as ‘Bring Me Home’ and the pop-reggae potential single ‘Babyfather’. These are catchy, enjoyable numbers (if you ignore the irritating faux-patois BGVs on ‘Babyfather’) that would be highlights on some other contemporary albums. On the other hand for a band of Sade’s calibre they are comparatively ordinary next to their best work.
There are still echoes on Soldier… of Sade’s penchant for clever, multi-faceted lyrics. On the excellent ‘Skin’ for example, a song about disengaging oneself from an unhealthy emotional entanglement, there’s an appealing ambiguity about the line…
‘Now as I begin to wash you off my skin, I’m gonna peel you away cos you’re not right within’.
Or on ‘Bring Me Home’ the abstract but thought-provoking imagery evoked by…
‘…The small step I need to take is a mountain stretched out like a lazy dog…’
That said, these illustrations notwithstanding Sade have shown greater lyrical dexterity on past projects than that displayed as a whole on Soldier…
At the risk of sounding like a begrudged fan that refuses to keep up with the changing faces of Sade’s music, Ms Adu and band were once the purveyors of remarkable albums; start to finish certified classics in their own right. Now they seem content just to make good rather than great records (which to be candid, will suffice given the current state of the market). I recently heard a journalist and lifelong Sade fan, comment that if the band is going to spend so much time away, they should work harder on the material than the most recent albums suggest. Maybe the lengthy sabbaticals between releases reflect Sade’s reluctance to return at all, knowing that they reached their zenith long ago.
By some distance, Soldier of Love is superior to Lovers Rock and a more consistent work. Nonetheless, after yet another ludicrously long wait I really wanted to love Soldier… – instead I’ll just have to settle for liking it quite a bit.
Sade’s back catalogue is impressive enough to keep fans loyal and awash with nostalgia. I hope it’s not this same nostalgia that is clouding my judgment but it appears the days of the era-defining Sade album are long gone. They are a band who have earned their stripes and have nothing left to prove. The result is that Soldier of Love is a fine, though not entirely life-changing, addition to the canon.