There are not a lot of crescendos in Sade’s music. No bells, whistles or trumpets-literally or figuratively. Not a lot of screaming, testifying or electrifying high-notes. In place of diva-like dramatics and vocal feats, there is soul-baring lyricism and a bit of everyone’s life cast into the verses of her songs. That quiet desperation in her music has allowed her to carve out a place for herself in the way of adult contemporary music, a slice of mainstream music that often suffers from redundant “baby-come-back” drama that is torture just to think about.
Perhaps her appeal, as a singer and ‘80s rock icon, is in her humility and inaccessibility. She is the anti-celebrity in such a quiet, modest way that it’s difficult to even imagine her in the ranks of any other singer. The enigmatic nature of who she is informs her music unconsciously, which is in itself seductive. The problem is, she barely moves beyond that archetype. One would hope that on a live album, she’d let her hair down, so to speak. “It’s such a pleasure,” she says quickly between songs, “to be up here performing these songs for you.” Even if it’s a line (one imagines that coming from her, it’s not) is she aware of how many broken hearted listeners she’s jerked tears from? How many lovers have slow danced to her mid-tempo grooves? The pleasure is ours. Almost.
Helen Folasade Adu and her band are their own genre. They are the space between jazz, mainstream and R&B that can’t be obscured or defined by the boundaries of labels. To call them adult contemporary R&B is almost a disservice, considering that they don’t really make R&B style music. Call it smooth rock, neo-jazz pop, or whatever the heck else. Basically, it’s just good music that conquers categorization. In their debut live album, after almost a decade of creating hit songs, Sade reaffirms their transcendence and classic simplicity with Lovers Live .
Many of the songs are old favorites like “Smooth Operator” and “The Sweetest Taboo”, which are performances that don’t surpass their original incarnations in the same way that her newer material seems to come alive—“Somebody Already Broke My Heart” is blended into a short melody with “Never As Good As the First Time”, which is intensely pretty and nicely executed. “Jezebel” varies only slightly onstage, but it is still haunting and Sade gives herself a little room to evoke the aching within each verse. Still, the instrumentation on many of Sade’s old material remains the same on the live album. It would have been nice to hear the band get loose around her vocals, but they might have thought there was no point in messing with excellence.
Then there are performances of songs like “Is It a Crime”—perhaps one of her more famous numbers—which are nuanced, seductive and as close to perfection as a vocalist can get. Sade wails in the studio, as she has done in the past. But there is nothing like a full out wail onstage to remind her fans that just because she doesn’t push the limits of her range often doesn’t mean she can’t do it. “The Sweetest Gift” is a lovely lullaby for Sade’s daughter, rendered as tenderly as a mother’s embrace. “The Sweetest Taboo”, arguably noted as her signature song, is more moving as a studio song, but on Lovers Live it’s still an aural feast. It is hard to imagine Sade’s raspy vocals and accent-tinged songs in any better form, but their live versions are as nearly as complete and evocative as their studio counterparts. Mostly, Lovers Live is part tribute to concertgoers and part praise song to the timeless elegance of a singer and band that have no category in our musical canon.
It may be easier for Sade to become even more of an international force if her live show reflected more energy and passion that is sometimes offered in her studio work. She will always be appreciated for her sweetness and the temperate nature of her songs. There’s nothing wrong with being cool and smooth—we all need some of that sometimes. But when and if Sade can move into a different musical space where she is brave enough to improvise onstage or surrender to the music in vocal phrases and not just words, she will be able to rise to legendary status. After all, it’s not hard to love her—48 million records sold worldwide prove that. It’s just a bit of a stretch to love her formulaic live recording. Sade fans will see Lovers Live as a triumph. Music connoisseurs will see it as a bit dull (except for the eager fans at the concert who whooped and hollered), understanding that a woman capable of creating such beautiful music, is capable of a much more compelling performance.