There’s something timeless about Sade. Her musical style doesn’t change, her look (and certainly her pulled-back hairstyle) doesn’t alter and her voice remains the same. She’s not so much stuck in a time warp as she’s her own time zone, never in a hurry to get to her destination. There are plenty of other singers who tread in her fairly flat delivery— such as Nick Drake or Tanita Tikaram (yes, she was a one hit wonder, but what a hit “Twist in My Sobriety” was). But there’s something about Sade that is sui generis.
Maybe it’s because we know nothing about her other than her songs. Or it could be that she seemingly could not care less about popularity in this fame-obsessed culture. Then again, it could just be that the emotion in her dusky alto sounds exactly the same whether she’s in the depths of despair or in paroxysms of joy.
On much of “Soldier of Love,” only her sixth studio album in 26 years and her first in a decade, she mines the familiar “love is a battlefield” trope. She does so with military precision on the winning title track and on the gentle, stunningly beautiful “The Safest Place.” On the latter, she assures her lover that her heart, “a lonely warrior,” has “been to war so you can be sure” that it’s now a safe place to hide his love
In addition to “The Safest Place,” the other standouts here are “Morning Bird” and “Long Hard Road.” “Morning Bird’s” lonely piano intro and lovely strings help set a breathtakingly sad tale of a love that has taken flight. It sounds like it might be about her mother’s passing. It’s haunting and ethereal. But then again, in the elliptical Sade world, it could be about something else totally.
“Road” is an affirmation that despite the tough times ahead, it’s going to be okay. The juxtaposition of the downer melody with the affirming lyrics could seem jarring, but in Sade’s hands, it feels comforting and meditative.
She pulls a similar songwriting trick, in reverse, on “Bring Me Home,” where longing, despondent lyrics play in proximity to fairly strong beats. Her struggle is over as the tears flow, but the melody is one of her most upbeat. The same is true of “Skin,” where she peel away the memory of her lover’s skin as easily as he has shed his feelings for her. (Is there really a line in there about Michael Jackson? We’ll have to get hold of the lyrics, but we swear we keep hearing “Like Michael back in the day.”)
This is Sade we’re talking about so the melodies only veer so much. There are fillips of world beats thrown in here and there throughout “Soldier of Love,” but for the most part, the tunes are mournful and the lyrics desolate. For Sade, anything that doesn’t make you want to slit your wrists counts as up tempo.
One of the nicest musical surprises is “In Another Time,” where Sade incorporates old-school R&B and breaks (if only ever so slightly) out of her typical musical pattern. It’s easy to imagine the song, with its lovely, swaying lilt, as an early Motown hit written by Smokey Robinson or, even better, as a buttery duet with Robinson.
Oddly, one of the few missteps here is “Babyfather,” an upbeat, island-flavored tune that is probably one of the most personal ever recorded by the enigmatic Sade. It’s a sweet tale about a child whose father’s lifetime of love is guaranteed sight unseen. It seems a little too lightweight for Sade. Who is this and what have they done with my sad Sade?
I hadn’t realized that I’d even remotely missed Sade until I listened to “Soldier of Love.” In fact, I can safely say that I hadn’t given her a second thought in the last decade or so, but what a welcome—if not entirely happy—return.
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