Lovers Rock (2000)
I found this one a bit hard to get into at first. The style is completely different, at least on the surface -- thematically, the songs trade in the same ideas of past albums, with a heavier emphasis on failed relationships. On the other hand, there is more of a maturity and ruefulness to the lyrics which ring more true than her more studied and portentous material in the eighties.
Featuring a more stripped down aesthetic and simpler arrangement, 'By Your Side' is something of a shock to the system. The simpler production means the music is more intimate and the sentiment never registers as an affectation. Even Adu's vocal feels genuine, and lacks the distance which is her signature.
Bearing a resemblance to dub, 'Flow' boasts a simple hip hop-like beat and acoustic guitar. To be honest, even stripped of their signature aesthetic, this track really feels like classic Sade. It's too simple to be memorable but helps cement the band's change in sound.
By the third track, 'King of Sorrow', the change gels. The more spare sound works well to humanise Adu, and allows the listener to really focus on her lyrics. While there is little change in theme (introspective soul searching is something of a cliche with this band) it does not feel tired or repetitive.
A sombre torch song, 'Somebody Already Broke My Heart' benefits from some vague neo-soul influence (some judicious stabs of distorted guitar and soft beats feel like leftovers from a Maxwell session).
'Slave Song' is a reggae-infused track about the history of slavery in the West Indies. It's a nice tip of the hat from the group toward the history and context behind the musical influences they are drawing on. As a song, it is not that memorable, but the lyrics are worth chewing on.
The next track is 'Immigrant', a song which picks up the historical and political themes of 'Slave Song'. It is another track that takes inspiration from West Indian culture and history. As a song, it feels more complete than that track. The lyrics are very evocative, referring to the same history as 'Slave Song' and work well with the minimalist, hip hop-style beats.
Zigging where you would expect them to zag, Sade end Lovers Rock with 'It's Only Love That Gets You Through', a piano ballad.In fact, this is one song where I feel like it could be even more stripped down - at certain points during the song, Sade Adu's vocals are mutli-tracked to emphasise specific lyrics. It just takes away a bit from intimacy of her voice and the piano. Overall though, it's a nice understated finale to the set.
Overall, Lovers Rock is an album that is more impressive as a stylistic shift than as a collection of songs. While the musicianship and production remain on-point, there is something weirdly ephemeral about the individual tracks. Even with the best ones, I'm not sure there is a song that I can immediately recall like her previous albums.
Sade's most recent album, Soldier of Love is to its predecessor what Love Deluxe was to Stronger than Pride: a return to the classic format, with a few of the new ideas developed in Lovers Rock.
One of the pleasures of Soldier of Love and its predecessor are its focus on real instruments. 'Long Hard Road' features a return to the interplay between acoustic guitar and cello from 'Every Word', although here these elements feel like essential parts of the song, rather than sonic ideas that don't quite connect to the tone of the lyrics. Here, the instruments complements the dark lyric, amplifying the themes of hardship and isolation, with Sade's usual steel providing a certain flicker of resistance and hope.
Sade and country. It's not a combo that you would expect, but considering Sade's recurrent focus on bad relationships and strong women, 'Be That Easy' actually feels like an overdue take on the genre. While it's not the best track on the album (might have to listen a few more times), it is one of the more successful genre exercises on the album.
One of the benefits of Sade's newfound minimalism is that it foregrounds the lyrics. 'Bring Me Home' opens the way most songs should: with a full-fledged Viking funeral. All jokes aside, the imagery of this song is very evocative, as Adu conjures various methods of going 'home', with the destination left pleasingly oblique: Heaven? Hell? Nothing? By the end of this song, it is clear that the war is over for the soldier of love. It should sound silly, but the combination of the violent imagery, Adu's typical understatement and the atmospheric musical bed make it more haunting than funny.
Almost waltz-like in temp, 'In Another Time' is another wistful portrait of a woman dejected by her brushes with amour (think 'Sally' or 'Jezebel'). In a slight improvement, Adu tries to reassure her that all is not lost. Unlike the tragic heroines of previous songs, this one is offered a glimmer of hope. Love may end, but life goes on. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into the sax solo.
'Skin' is one of the more interesting tracks on the LP. A song about starting over after a bad breakup, it uses the image of washing skin (or peeling off dirt) to represent this renewal. As a song it's too mellow and throwaway, but the lyrics at least show some imagination. And it's nice to see Sade stay away from wallowing in the post-break malaise. Nice to see even the band got sick of it.
A fitting finale to the ideas of the previous songs, 'The Safest Place' is a reflective track in which Adu emphasises the importance of her emotional scars, and how they have made her a better person. Calling her heart a 'lonely soldier' who has been hardened by war, while her lyrics are dedicated to an unseen lover, they are really a salute to her own self-worth. She is now in place where she can afford to love, or not to love, as she sees fit. No more smooth operators or Mr Wrongs. She has been through all that before. She can handle all of it.
A solid return, and a more successful change in direction than Lovers Rock, Soldier of Love benefits from a more sure handle on how to change the band's style while ensuring that the stylistic change works with the songs. Speaking of which, while most of the songs are not as memorable or catchy as her earlier work, they feel more well-constructed than on their previous album. And with the title track, Sade have created a great tune that stands up there with 'The Sweetest Taboo', 'Smooth Operator' and 'No Ordinary Love'.
Soldier of Love came out over six years ago, with no news of future recordings since. We are back to the waiting game they have been playing since 1992. The last I heard of the singer was when Drake shared a photo on his Instagram account of them hanging out. Here's hoping that is a sign that the call will go out soon and the band will regroup to deliver another record.