In 1982, Smooth Operator, a song by the Latin soul group Pride, aroused the interest of talent scouts in the UK record industry. Sung solo by the British-Nigerian vocalist Helen Folasade Adu, it was eventually made into a celebrated (and repeatedly aired) music video by filmmaker Julian Temple.
Departing from Pride, Folasade signed with Epic Records and took with her saxophonist Stuart Matthewman, keyboardist Andrew Hale and bassist Paul Spencer Denman.
Soul had been granted an afterlife. The new band – Sade – took its name from the nick of its comely singer, truncated from Folasade (in the West African tongue of Yoruba, Folasade means “Honour confers a crown”).
Sade – both the lady and her band – have worn that crown ever since. The reclusive 51-year-old chanteuse, who was conferred the OBE in 2002, remains graceful, youthful and svelte. Smooth Operator, with Sade Adu’s caramel voice and Matthewman’s unforgettable sax finale, continues to enjoy copious airplay.
Album after album of liquid, wistful, heart-tugging songs has shinnied up the charts in a blink and stayed there for weeks on end. Soldier of Love, Sade’s sixth, is something more. It comes ten years after her last, Lovers Rock (2000), and eight years after her last public appearance – the Lovers Live tour of 2001-02.
Recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, Soldier is a predestined winner. Debuting on the Billboard 200 at No. 1 in February, it sold over 502,000 copies in its first week in the USA.
The title track is charged and anthemic with distorted guitar accents and marching drumrolls. Weaving through the programmed beats, fine keyboard work and saxophone parts, the lushness of Sade’s voice is complemented by exquisite arrangement and unblemished production quality, along with a new maturity. There is also a touch of daredevilry in the songwriting.
Matthewman’s saxophone on In Another Time is breathy at first, then soars to the song’s denouement. Long Hard Road is laced with the blissful melancholy so characteristic of Sade’s music. Bring Me Home is searching and soulful with an insistent beat and the unforgettable stanza ‘The small step I need to take is a mountain stretched out like a lazy dog’. Babyfather features the vocals, sung in unison, of Sade’s daughter Ila and Matthewman’s son Clay and the gorgeously resonant reprise ‘Your daddy knows you’re a flame’.
Soul at its most soulful, Soldier of Love is easy listening but it has been hard to come by, and after a long, long wait. In fact, Sade and her band, who have lived on different continents since Lovers Rock, regrouped over weekends to produce the new record.
In a rare and revealing interview with Robert Sandall of The Sunday Times in January, Sade recalled a graffito on a glamorous poster of herself: “This bitch sings when she wants to.” Laughing at the memory, she believes it’s a telling observation – no one can tell her when to make music.
Despite the years, the pain and the pleasure, Helen Folasade Adu’s voice seems not to have aged at all. In love’s timeless temple, she remains the high priestess.
Soldier of Love
Sony Music, 2010
This review first appeared in M magazine, April 2010
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