I have been told more than once that I have a freakishly good long term memory. It is thus a bitter irony that, despite the numerous mental titbits I have retained from infanthood my one brief encounter with Helen Folasade Adu – or Sade as she is better known – has disappeared from the recesses of my brain.
As my mother tells it, we were waiting in Lagos airport for our plane back to the UK and Sade was also returning to Blighty from one of her frequent trips to Nigeria. It was around 1984/85. I was three years old and Sade and her band had just started taking the world by storm with their unique kind of soulful pop on a smoothed-out jazz vibe. Diamond Life, their debut, eventually scooped a Best Newcomer Grammy and Sade herself was one of the few recording artists ever to appear on the cover of America’s’ Time magazine.
Despite being barely out of toddlerhood I would have been very aware of whom she was as my mother pointed her out to me. According to mum, Ms Adu was so unassuming even the airport staff didn’t hassle her (anyone who’s visited Lagos airport would understand how strange this is in itself), instead giving her a speedy VIP boarding pass. She graciously signed some autographs before getting on the plane and – as mum tells it – that was basically it. I have strained my brain cells trying to call this scene to memory, to no avail.
I have wondered if this is when my enduring devotion to Sade’s artistry commenced. I don’t know; as with some of the other influential artists of that time it is difficult to pinpoint a moment when I was first drawn to their music. It is as if Sade and band have always been there somewhere in the annals of my mind. I do have distinct memories of my mum singing “Love Is Stronger than Pride” when Sade released the (almost) eponymous album. I recall studying the midnight-blue artwork of the family copy of Promise on vinyl, the famous shots of their front-woman performing at Live Aid ’85 with her gelled hair and signature long plait hanging to the middle of her back.
I also recall reading a rare interview with Sade in a Sunday supplement on the release of the Love Deluxe record circa 1992 and admiring how mocha-gorgeous she looked on the sleeve of the album, which my mum had on cassette. I remember somehow accumulating a decent knowledge of Sade’s back catalogue and how, what was then Jazz FM, used to keep the love alive by playing their tunes. I recall how excited I was when she made one of her legendary comebacks after yet another ludicrously long (eight-year) sabbatical with Lovers Rock in 2000. I watched her performance at that year’s MOBO’s during my second year at University, feeling ticked off at the audience for speaking over it and the general lukewarm reception here in the UK to her return to the scene.
Clearly, Sade and band have been an organic part of my growing up. In my early 20s, a chance friendship with a fellow Sade fan re-kindled my passion for their songs and I really began to analyse why Sade continues to fascinate me.
First there’s the matter of patrimony. Both Sade and I have fathers of Nigerian stock, the Yoruba ethnic group from the West coast of the country to be precise. I dare say that it would be nigh impossible for anyone of Nigerian origin around before the ‘90s to be unaware of Sade. Born in Ibadan, in 1959 she is very probably one of Naija’s most celebrated exports.
Then there’s Ms Adu alluring beauty and statuesque physique which, combined with her effortless cool and sophistication makes her the stuff of myth. Whilst recently watching a documentary on the ‘80s, it is very telling to hear Sade’s female contemporaries speak of how, compared to most other women at the time, she wore small amounts of make-up and had a simple elegance about her. Adu herself once described her image as ‘stark’. In her videos you never see her trying to romance the camera, instead she’s often looking somewhere in the middle distance as if she has far more weighty issues on her mind. Her aloof singing expression, muted dance moves, reluctance to display her dazzling smile more often and general slickness make her all the more enchanting. She is famously guarded about her private life too, allegedly claiming that all you need to know can be learned through her heart-on-sleeve lyrics. Nothing sparks curiosity like the enigmatic.
After the success of second album Promise, Sade fled to Spain to avoid the glare of the Paparazzi. Like Kate Bush before her, she seemed to eschew the fame that was an inevitable by-product of her success. This is a far cry from the female celebrities of today with their kiss-and-tell stories, urinating on stage and insistence on flashing body parts that would make a gynaecologist blush. Sade did do her share of risqué videos – “Feel No Pain” and “Kiss Of Life” come to mind – but there was nothing truly sleazy about them. She embodied the less-is-more school of thought regarding sex appeal; subtle tantalisation which leaves enough to the imagination. It is wonderful to look back to a time when talented, beautiful women such as Sade and Whitney Houston (in her 1980s incarnation) were the epitome of class, not chasing fame for its own sake and receiving media coverage only when they released new material, the focus mainly on their songs.
Sade brings this same level of classiness to the music she makes, which is by far the most important factor for her fans. First of all she possesses something which eludes dare say the majority of vocalists – an unmistakable quality about her voice. Her distinctive, smoky contralto with its masculine textures is unlike anything I’ve heard; I can’t think of anyone who sounds like Ms Adu. The one occasion someone tried to imitate her on ‘Stars in Their Eyes’, she just sounded as if she was doing a bad impression of a man. Sade doesn’t do much in the way of leaping across octaves or show-boating melisma. There’s definitely no affecting an American accent when she sings, opting for her natural estuarial tone with its Nigerian cadence instead. Much like everything else about Adu’s music and style there’s a beauty in the simplicity and restraint.
Strangely enough rumour has it that when Sade joined forces with band-mates Stuart Matthewman, Andrew Hale and Paul Spencer Denman, the former fashion student only saw herself as a fill-in vocalist until they got a ‘proper’ singer. Thankfully she was never replaced. Her superb songwriting skills would probably have had a lot to do with this.
As the increasingly huge gaps – of up to a decade – between albums suggest, Sade aren’t about albums for albums sake just to keep the record company happy and the fans from wandering off. It’s exactly this assiduous attitude towards the quality of their output that makes each of their five studio albums so far, classics in their own right (some more than others, admittedly). They never need worry about being abandoned by their fans because there is nothing forgettable about their music – it’s timeless, belonging to a sub-genre of soul all of its own. Sade have created their own mood and sound. How else could you explain the lasting interest worldwide in Sade’s music during the long, silent years between albums? Especially when you consider how rarely the band play live. Even Chris Rock noted, in his sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, that some opportunities are as scarce as to come round as often as a Sade tour. Indeed.
Sade and band craft addictive melodies around thoughtful, substantial lyrics. And then there is the idiosyncratic phrasing, the doleful way she resolves her notes and the trademark vocal arrangements including all-male BGVs – honey voiced tenor Leroy Osborne being the main man – that have helped set Sade’s sound apart (I’d cite “Cherish The Day” and “Nothing Can Come Between Us” as two of the best examples of this male/female vocal fusion).
If pressed I would say the best Sade albums are Diamond Life and Love Deluxe with Stronger than Pride coming a solid third. More than anything they showcase Adu at her lyrical best. Her Grammy-award winning debut Diamond Life is probably the least impressive vocal performance of Sade’s career as she was clearly still finding her voice – yet the songwriting on this seminal album from start to finish is superlative.
Too often accused by her invariably male detractors as being dull and depressing, I say as a riposte to such that either they are not paying enough attention or Ms Adu’s vulnerability and emotional candour leaves them slightly uncomfortable. True, Sade has an inclination towards the sad love song but she’s far more versatile than her critics claim. I wouldn’t be as impressed with her penmanship if she was merely a balladeer.
There’s a universal aspect to her songs. Any artist should consider themselves blessed if they could produce something as era-defining as “Smooth Operator” – which caught the mood of yuppie fever at the time – or “Sweetest Taboo” which has been sampled/covered nearly to death. Sade is a master-storyteller, saying so much whilst saying so little. The songs tackle myriad weighty topics such as social and economic meltdown (“Feel No Pain”), confessions of a war criminal (“Like A Tattoo”), ruthless ambition fuelled by poverty (“Jezebel”), escaping bondage (“Slave Song”), I could go on. In fact if there is one recurring subject in Sade’s songs it’s that of loyalty and friendship (“By Your Side”, “I Will Be Your Friend”, “Cherish The Day”, “Turn My Back On You”…).
To boot, the band are a lot more flexible in their song-writing than the safe pop structure of chorus-verse-chorus or vice versa, at times – as on “By Your Side” and “Clean Heart” – jettisoning a refrain altogether. The meanings of the songs aren’t always easy to decipher either; sometimes they are as abstract lyrically as they are accessible melodically. I still can’t work out if the track “Sally” – a moody epic about the woes of urban isolation – is referring to the Salvation Army or a prostitute who gives TLC to lonely, disillusioned punters. It’s fun trying to figure it out though.
It’s with bated breath that so many look forward to Sade’s next project, Soldier of Love. Her first single also called “Soldier of Love” has fuelled some interesting debate. There are some, like myself, who were taken aback at first by its more heavily-produced sound. The band is known for their sparse arrangements and even on epic tracks such as “No Ordinary Love” or “Cherish The Day” there is something raw and spacious about the soundscape.
This new single does seem to give at least a slight nod to the overly-polished, Hip Hop based R&B that dominated the last decade’s music. A few of us Sade fans have grown accustomed to the band existing in their own musical bubble which to be fair, has always worked for them; in certain eyes “Soldier Of Love” is a compromise of sorts. Nevertheless it is a very solid comeback track and it makes much more of an impression on the first few listens than “By Your Side” – the lead single from Lovers Rock.
Sade, after all, are a band that evolves with each new release so we should always expect something a bit different from the last. “Soldier of Love” still has the hallmarks of classic Sade: plaintive melody, a call-and-response element, lingering male BVs, haunting guitar riff, world-weary, heartfelt lyrics and understated vocals that remain evocative. Reassuringly, the super-slick production hasn’t denied us of that ineffable quality that has set the band apart for a quarter of a century. The promo video, directed by long time visual collaborator Sophie Muller, serves the track well. Staying true to the warfront imagery of the lyrics, it enhances appreciation for the song and proves that Ms Adu, still body-fabulous at 51, has lost none of her iconic appeal.
My verdict? Sade’s place in Soul music history is secure.
Groove Lineage are holding the official Sade London release party for Soldier Of Love on Friday 5th February 2010 – click for information.