People love to talk about the curse of Grammy’s Best New Artist, but what gets overlooked is the amount of times the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences has gotten it right. Case in point, the 1985 ceremonies. While nominees a-ha, Katrina & the Waves and Julian Lennon were has-beens in America by the end of the decade, eventual winner Sade has maintained a level of popularity for a quarter-century now. This is evidenced by not only the fact that “Soldier of Love”, the band’s new album, sold over half a million copies in its’ first week, but by the fact that their influence brings together artists as disparate as Anita Baker and Massive Attack.
Led by lead singer Helen Folasade Adu (who is NOT the only member of the bad, as generally believed), Sade started out as a jazz-influenced R&B band-sort of a Spandau Ballet with more soul. Adu’s smoky vocals and the band’s languid grooves were an immediate hit-a little bit pop, a little bit jazz, a little bit quiet storm. In the years since, the band’s sound has subtly expanded to remain current. adding elements of reggae and electronica into the mix. At 50, Adu’s voice is as seductive as ever, and the band (Stuart Matthewman, Paul Denman and Andrew Hale) spend most of “Soldier of Love” musically splitting the difference between grooves that are chillout-worthy and headboard banging-worthy.
Each Sade album has been different from the one that preceded it, while maintaining a sound easily recognizable as Sade. The main difference between “Soldier of Love” and it’s predecessor, 2000’s “Lovers Rock”, is lyrical. While “Rock” found the band mostly revelling in the power and beauty of love, most of “Soldier”‘s lyrical content is on the downcast side. Much like John Mayer’s recent “Battle Studies”, “Soldier of Love” is a loose concept album comparing the emotional scars of love to the carnage of a battlefield.
This concept is best rendered during the album’s title track, a dark tune with rolling, militaristic drumbeats. From a musical standpoint, it gives more of a nod to hip-hop than any previously released work by the band. At six minutes plus, it might be a minute or two too long, but it’s a solid track that served to whet the appetite for the rest of the album when it was released to radio a couple months ago.
“Morning Bird” is another track that has a percussion element with a military flavor, but it sets that percussion against a mournful piano and a swelling string section to create a startlingly intimate and beautiful musical moment. Lyrically, it takes a more devotional tone than much of the album, but the lyrics are secondary to the instrumental arrangement here “Babyfather” is a more joyful affair, with a sing-song island vibe, while “In Another Time” has a swaying, retro-soul groove that serves as a reminder of who artists like Corinne Bailey Rae got their sound from.
“Skin” is probably the “Soldier” track that sounds the most like traditional Sade, which is a good thing, of course. However, it gets extra points from me for giving a subtle shout out to fallen icon (and labelmate) Michael Jackson by referencing him in the song’s first verse.
While “Soldier of Love” has peaks and valleys, you’ve got to give credit to Sade for having one of the most filler-free catalogs of any artist in history. While “Soldier” doesn’t reach the same heights as 1988’s “Stronger than Pride” or 1992’s “Love Deluxe” in my book, it’s still an amazingly solidly album. Musically speaking, the band has an amazing reach, able to appeal to lovers of genres from neo-soul to folk/pop as performed by the likes of David Gray and Damien Rice.
Since their American debut in 1985, Sade has seen many artists fly higher from both an artistic and commercial standpoint. Most of those artists have since burned out, while Adu and company are still hanging around, as good as ever. “Soldier of Love” is a testament to the band’s superior musicianship and their ability to change with the times while still retaining a core sound. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another decade for their next album!!
(Because I posted the “Soldier of Love” video in this blog’s first post…here’s some old-school Sade to tide you over).