It begins with a mournful guitar melody. The notes float over strings and waves of ambient tones. A high-pitched keyboard whistle is delicately brushed into the soundscape. The bass dips and locks into a deep, slowly undulating rhythm. Then, that unmistakable voice peers through, like amber piercing midnight blue. The song is “The Moon and the Sky” and the voice belongs to Sade Adu.
A long ten years have prefaced this moment. For Sade’s most ardent listeners, the time between the present and Lover’s Rock (2000) has lasted an eternity. When “Soldier of Love” surfaced online just a few months ago, news of a new Sade song fast ignited a blaze of exclamation points across blogs and Facebook pages all over the world. The excitement stirred by “Soldier of Love” has made Sade’s latest release the first hotly anticipated album of the ‘10s.
Mirroring how Diamond Life (1984) cleansed the palette of pop music tastes during the 1980s, Soldier of Love is a timely antidote to our current era of Glee, Auto-Tune, and American Idol. Though Sade’s music has become less about saxophones, smooth operators, and sweet taboos in the ensuing years, there is still a quality about the group that does not solely reflect any one particular style. With each Sade release, the public expects a distillation of the elements that made Diamond Life unique in the first place, though the lead singer eschews the notion of Sade as a brand. There’s a musical alchemy that transpires when Sade Adu, Stuart Matthewman, Andrew Hale, and Paul Denman come together. Soldier of Love is a welcome addition to the band’s quarter-century legacy.
The songs on Soldier of Love depict a soul whose wounds still sting but are healing with the hope that love will return. “My heart has been a lonely warrior before, whose been to war, so you can be sure,” Sade sings on “The Safest Place”, which brings the album’s ten songs to a pensive conclusion. It’s a closing statement that suits the context of the album, a kind survivor’s guide to love.
The pain suffered in “The Moon and the Sky” (a gorgeous production, by the way), precedes the title track’s nomadic quest for love. With its militaristic drum trills and chant-like chorus, “Soldier of Love” is one of the most sonically compelling tracks Sade has ever recorded and features possibly the boldest opening line the singer has ever intoned: “I’ve lost the use of my heart but I’m still alive.” Words like “battle”, “hinterland”, and “frontline” comprise a chilling metaphor for her despair.
“Morning Bird” is as sparse as “Soldier of Love” is aurally abundant. Piano, percussion, and strings adorn the rich tone of Sade’s voice, which eerily ascends to “Is It a Crime”-like heights for a moment. Though the elliptical phrasing of the lyrics yield a generous amount of interpretation, the final couplet—“If you set me free, I will not run”—encapsulates the emotional thrust of the song.
The musical elements on Soldier of Love are more diverse than one might initially detect after the first listen. The breezy bounce of “Babyfather” detours from the relative starkness of “Morning Bird” while Sade sings the hymn-like “Long Hard Road” as a spiritual. The palette diversifies even more when the slow cadence of “Be That Easy” incorporates a bluesy strain of country underneath Sade’s narrative. These kind of details emphasize how the appeal of Sade’s music is based partly on the subtleties that dress the melody. Stuart Matthewman’s softly wailing sax, for example, turns “In Another Time” into a glistening nebula for a moment. On “Bring Me Home”, the ghostly voices underneath the lead vocal transform the song into a dirge, albeit a dirge with a drumbeat.
The qualities that millions of devoted fans enjoy about Sade are placed in new contexts on Soldier of Love. While listeners may not hear anything precisely reminiscent of their favorite songs on Promise (1985) or Stronger Than Pride (1987), they will hear Sade tread new territory. “I never want to repeat myself,” the singer has said. In this first year of a new decade, Sade bravely soldiers on, ever-committed to her artistic vision.