Listen Again, for the First Time
Regularity comforts the human animal. There’s a sense of relief gleaned from things that suggest order in the world. It’s evident in the passing seasons, Old Faithful’s eruptions, the life cycle of cicadas, and to no small extent the voice and temperament of one Sade Adu. Leading her namesake outfit Sade on Soldier of Love, Adu has quietly slipped into the role of a female Barry White, as consistently warm and romantic as a bear rug in front of a fireplace.
Sade always skirted the boundaries of smooth-jazz cliché. Their first and biggest hits, “Sweetest Taboo” and “Smooth Operator,” are quietly divisive; they’re either stone-cold bedroom classics or the most strained of soul derivatives. But Soldier of Love is just Sade’s sixth studio album in 26 years, their first in about 10, and it’s obviously a product of shedding and replacing musical influences like snake skin.
In the comfortable, low-key, synthesized acid jazz of “Skin” and “The Safest Place,” Sade throw back to Massive Attack circa Blue Lines, an album that could draw an evolutionary line to Sade’s own debut. “Be That Easy” and “In Another Time” have the look and feel of AAA singer-songwriters. Most striking, however, are songs like “Bring Me Home” and “Morning Bird.” Their simple, minimalist loops merge with Adu’s deftly longing vocals to bookend the work of The xx.
This is not to say mistakes aren’t made on Soldier of Love. Most are found in Adu’s words, silky smooth as they may sound. “Babyfather” is a particularly misguided, overly idealistic twist on the participants in and results of an unprotected sexual fling. She also falls back on career-long lyrical tropes that are reliable to the point of tiredness—repeated references to birds, the moon, and the sky, and clumsy analogies with war and politics.
On this last point, such content fails in her minor-key lullaby “The Safest Place,” but matched up with surprisingly dissonant drums and guitar, it succeeds in the love-as-competition title track, as Hot Chip’s “Wrestlers” once did. There are other small, pleasant surprises to find in Soldier of Love, like the Michael Jackson tribute tucked into “Skin” and a drive-by overdub in “The Moon and the Sky.”
Overall, the buffer of time gives all parties involved—Adu and her honey-dipped voice, the band and their measured approach—a renewed sense of discovery on hearing what’s really a signature sound. Critics might normally consider a long series of albums sounding the same some sort of artistic failing. Sade, however, fulfill such sensory needs that their formula for doing so is sacrosanct.