Soldier Of Love ••••
The title of Sade’s new album, her first in a decade, could not be more apt. The singer, who has been making music for nearly 30 years with cohorts Stuart Matthewman, Paul Denman and Andrew Hale, seems to have spent a lifetime not only battling love, but fame, life and her own personal demons. The result is a woman who sounds both defiant and weary, not only in her lyrics but also in the quality of her voice; slightly frayed around the edges but still as full of melancholic soul and rarefied as ever. Soldier Of Love is, in many ways, the final part of a trilogy of albums that started with 1992’s Love Deluxe and continued with 2000’s Lovers Rock. Not only are they all variations on love as a theme, but they are also cut from the same sonic cloth – a modern blend of soulful, sometimes hard-edged hip-hop, infused with country, jazz and blues. But where Love Deluxe was sensual and romantic and Lovers Rock was a paean to the strength relationships offer, Soldier Of Love is much more about the pain love exacts and the disappointments encountered, shot through with a belief that this most ungovernable of emotions will ultimately redeem and save.
The first single, the ultra-modern eponymous track, perfectly encapsulates this notion. The beats are hard and militant, the instrumentation spiky yet sparse, as Sade ensures us “I am a soldier of love / everyday of my life, I’ve been torn up inside… / so I rise, I have the will to survive”. While it’s undoubtedly the type of song she could never have written before, its minimalist R&B sound is also something of a red herring. Anyone expecting to hear an album of similarly contemporary sounding songs will be disappointed; Sade does seem too bothered about winning new admirers, preferring instead to simply please her loyal fanbase. As such, Soldier Of Love sticks to the usual Sade sonic template, but what it lacks in groundbreaking ideas it more than atones for with beautifully crafted songs, the care and attention gone into each one clearly apparent. And the richness starts right from the outset; with its warm synth strings, guitars, rumbling bass and stuttering beats, opening track ‘The Moon & The Sky’ finds Sade admonishing a lover for abandoning their relationship (“You’ll always know the reason why / we could have had the moon and the sky”) over gently evolving melodies and layered vocals to great effect, creating a taut sense of drama.
Among the album’s many highlights, ‘Morning Bird’ is one of the most distinct. Stripped away of all sonic peripherals so that just strings, piano, sparse percussion and Sade’s voice remain, its melodic subtlety ensures that even after repeated plays new wonders are unfurled. Sade has never sounded so weary and sad as she addresses the protagonist in a song about betrayal and bitter disappointment. The coda “If you set me free I will not run” is both beautiful and mournful, most reminiscent of Love Deluxe‘s premier acoustic ballad ‘Like A Tattoo’. ‘Babyfather’ changes pace with a lilting dub reggae arrangement that somehow sounds fresh despite the obvious sonic anachronisms. Though she’s known for protecting her privacy fiercely, here Sade addresses the father of her young daughter, a Jamaican musician who joins her mother in being gently outspoken on this uncharacteristically self-evident song. ‘Long Hard Road’ again captures the sense of a long uphill climb, Sade’s experience giving her an inner strength she so beguilingly expresses as the acoustic guitar flourishes and beautifully arranged strings add an elegiac element to proceedings.
The album’s second half opens with the bluesy, country-tinged ‘Be That Easy’. Awash with slide guitars, lilting melodies and tight cooing harmonies, the song once again covers the same lyrical territory, the hardships of love etc etc. ‘Bring Me Home’ returns to a more contemporary R&B sound as hip-hop beats adorned with descending guitar arpeggios and heavy bass vie with a warm humming backdrop that elevates the song into gospel territory. Melodically it recalls ‘King Of Sorrow’ from Lover’s Rock, but here the contrapuntal backing vocals slowly build up the tension with Sade’s voice entering a hitherto unheard range. After the acoustic doo-wop style ballad ‘In Another Time’, a song that serves as a warning to her daughter about the pitfalls of romance (“You’ll be surprised girl / soon they’ll mean nothing to you”), penultimate song ‘Skin’ has the distinction of featuring a small tribute to Michael Jackson, whose name is mentioned against one of his faint, infamous yelps. Here, the song’s tough beats, dub bass and washes of guitar serve to match Sade’s gritty determination to leave behind a dangerous lover, and it’s all set against a wonderful melodic refrain.
To expect anything other than a tender finale from Sade would be tantamount to heresy, and indeed it’s another delicate guitar-led dedication to her daughter that waves us out with a protective motherly glow and a reminder of her sacrifices. “My heart has been a lonely warrior who’s been to war / so that you can be sure,” she sings, her vocals ringing with a hard-won truth, a gentle close to an album full of lyrical grit and sonic toughness but also overflowing with warmth and hope. Arguably the crowning achievement of a long career that has seen her shift more records than any other UK female artist, Soldier Of Love might not win Sade all that many new fans but those who have grown up with her music will likely find new depths to their admiration.
UK release date: 08/02/10; www.myspace.com/sade
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