Sade: Soldier of Love (Album Review)

“You only grow as an artist as long as you allow yourself to grow as a person. We’re all parents, our lives have all moved on. I couldn’t have made Solider of Love any time before now….”

-Sade Adu

Coming into the fourth decade of her career, Sade Adu has become an esoteric figure in the music industry. Since the early 90s she’s shrouded her life from popular culture, leaving her one album per decade average as the main tool for press and fans to speculate on her private dealings and thoughts. Those sparse offerings have delivered some of the best musings on love ever recorded, ranging from unbridled ecstasy (“Couldn’t Love You More”) to wallowing anguish (“King of Sorrow”). With a new decade upon us, Sade returns with another offering from the depths of her soul in Soldier of Love.

“The Moon and the Sky” opens the LP on the theme of unconditional love abused by selfishness. The string arrangements and trudging bass allow Sade’s voice to dominate, and she stretches several notes to accentuate the forlorn disbelief at how her lover abuses her loyalty ("So why did he make me cry?/Why didn’t you come get me one last time?/You let me down….You left me there dying” ).

That damage transitions well to the lead single “Soldier of Love.” The stabbing, aggressive guitar chords and marching drums are a clear break from Sade’s previous work, and give a modern feel sure to catch younger fans not familiar with her work. In the context of the album, it builds on the numbing pain of the opening song, but displays the songstress still determined to persevere (“I’ve lost the use of my heart/But I’m still alive…”).

The only other uptempo track, “Bring Me Home,” ironically contains the strongest lyrics of hopelessness. The despair is punctuated by backing vocals which titter on low mourning wails, and Sade invokes spiritual loss and regret (“I’ve cried for the lives I’ve lost/Like a child in need of love/I’ve been so close but far away from God….I’ve cried the tears so let the tide take me/I won’t fight/I’ve cried the tears.”)

The Sade band, composed of Stuart Colin Matthewman (guitar,sax), Paul Spencer Denman (bass), and Andrew Hale (keyboards), have retained their innate ability to not only seamlessly glide through different music genres, but merge them as needed to support their lead singer’s ethereal voice. “Babyfather” brings street reggae rhythms to support Sade’s celebration of parenthood and first ever collaboration with 13 year old daughter Ila. On “Be That Easy,” the band embraces the blues while Adu ruminates on her life being in freefall, her love remaining as the only tangible, pure facet (“Falling down, flying as slow as I can/I’m not trying to reach the land/Just falling somewhere/It couldn’t be that easy/It had to be much harder/Meanwhile boy, I love you”).

Sade Adu’s lasting appeal has been tied to the uniqueness of her soothing, rich alto vocals. Like previous legends Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, her voice has gotten deeper with age. In her early years, Sade had underrated range (see “Pearls,” Frankie’s First Affair”). The voice is now slightly weaker, but not alarmingly so. The change is only noticeable when the band’s arrangements call for her to hit higher notes, as heard on “Morning Bird.” Perhaps by design, Adu for the majority of Soldier of Love isn’t required to extend or test her vocal limits.

As with all Sade LPs, the ballads are empathetic and overflow with introspection. “In Another Time” features engaging sax and string instrumentation (violin, cello) that will remind longtime fans of the jazz fusion pieces heard on Diamond Life and Promise. The track is another testament to Sade’s exceptional skill as a songwriter, as the lyrics can be interpreted as an ode to her daughter, or words of inspiration to downtrodden women.

“Skin” invokes the album’s strongest imagery as a meditative piece on when self-identity and preservation supersedes love for another. The song is classic Sade, with the singer describing the process of “peeling” and “washing” away the elements of an ex-lover on her psyche. Her phrasing is flawless, working in perfect harmony with her band’s subdued melodies.

The album has an unmistakable feeling of sadness, but ends with optimism on “The Safest Place.” Although the guitar and violin chords maintain a pensive color, Sade’s words show she remains unbroken, alluding to the spiritual warfare detailed in the album’s journey (“My heart’’s been a lonely warrior/Who’s been to war so you can be sure/Your love’s in a sacred place/The safest hiding place.”)

For Sade, Soldier of Love is a work that continues the excellence she’s displayed since her debut 26 years ago. While the greatness that is Love Deluxe is likely untouchable ever again, Sade builds on and exceeds her fine work from 2000’s Lover’s Rock. When it comes to Sade, her extended albums breaks are an example of her dedication to her craft, and the importance she sees in letting life and spirit dictate when it’s time to drop over industry protocols.

Welcome back, Sade.