The Return of Pop’s Beautiful Stranger
Some people are more inscrutable than others, and after 25 years, Sade is as much of a stranger as she was when we first heard her crooning “Smooth Operator” — or for those who were more plugged in at the time, “Your Love Is King,” her actual debut single.
What we do know about Sade, who releases Soldier of Love, her first new album in nearly a decade, on February 8, we know from the music she occasionally makes with the band that bears her name. Her lyrical precision, her direct, unfussy vocal approach — warm yet somehow coolly detached — seem to say, “What you hear is what you get.” But are the songs a mirror held up to the woman who writes and sings them? Do “The Sweetest Taboo” or “No Ordinary Love” say anything about Sade, the woman.
In 2003, Annie Lennox released a gorgeous, almost unrelentingly downbeat album called Bare. In profiles of Lennox written around the time, her friends characterized her as being something of a depressive, battered and bruised emotionally but pouring her pain into her art. This background information made an album that may have been dismissed as being dreary, sound bolder and more vivid. It illuminated Bare, intensifying its beauty and giving it more resonance.
Years ago, I interviewed Basia, who was promoting her The Sweetest Illusion album, and she told me that she had written the song “My Cruel Ways” after a nasty falling out with her boyfriend. I never was able to listen to the song in the same way again. I still think it’s the best thing Basia’s ever done.
Too much information about a movie star’s off-screen antics can prevent us from buying his or her onscreen ones. But in music, a little knowledge is not such a dangerous thing. In fact, it can enhance the listening experience.
We listen to Rihanna’s Rated R, and we wonder which of her sharp barbs are aimed at Chris Brown, which gives it an extra layer of depth…. How much of Lady Gaga’s success is due to her music, and how much of it is her very public persona? I’d say credit goes equally to both…. Is she or is she not singing about Jay-Z? Doesn’t that make a Beyoncé song like “Ring the Alarm” all the more fun?
Sade, however, is a mystery. She takes years between albums, and in between projects, she more or less drops off the face of the earth. Even when she has a new album to promote, she rarely gives interviews or makes public appearances. You won’t see her duetting with Norah Jones at the Grammys or making small talk with Matt Lauer on the Today show.
If one were to go strictly by the songs on Soldier of Love, one might say Sade is a “lonely warrior” (her words, on “The Safest Place”) who isn’t yet ready to lay down her arms. For the most part, the mood is contemplative and somber, with only traces of hope. It’s her most joyless album since 1985’s Promise.
To be fair, Sade always sounds kind of sad, even in the throes of love. When you think about it, there is something a bit dark and disturbing about the obsession and desperation that are part of love’s packaged deal — which is actually an idea she presented on “No Ordinary Love” 18 years ago. Love is rejuvenating, and in a sense, it’s draining, too.
But is there more to Sade’s blue mood? Is Soldier of Love — and all that came before it — a peek inside a tortured soul? Perhaps like the first single and title cut, it’s merely a tease. If “Soldier of Love,” with its dub-metallic flourishes and trip-hop ambience, made you hopeful for an album-length departure from her usual mellow soul, you’ll be disappointed. The other nine tracks pretty much follow Sade’s quiet-storm blueprint, many of them in the vein of the acoustic guitar-laced “By Your Side,” the first single from her last album, 2001’s Lovers Rock, with brief detours into dub reggae (“Babyfather”) and even country (“Be That Easy”).
By the time “The Safest Place,” the 10th and final track rolls around, even those who have thoroughly enjoyed this latest thing of delicate beauty that Sade has made still will be scratching their heads and wondering, “But who’s that girl?”