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Remodeling without reinvention is one of the keys to success for most musical icons. Those who develop commanding artistic voices seldom bend to current trends but are always somehow modern-sounding. The ultrastylish Sade stayed true to its (yes, “Sade” refers to the band, not just frontwoman Helen Folasade Adukinda like Van Halen) brand of faux-jazz Eurosoul throughout the ’80s, when the charts were dominated by dance-popsters like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. During the following decade, Sade released only one album of new material, 1992’s Love Deluxe, which, like its two predecessors, yielded huge commercial success despite being nothing more than a variation on the band’s brilliant 1984 debut, Diamond Life.
It’s to Sade’s credit that the group waits several years between recording albums, transforming what could be mere record releases into myth-making publicity events. Lovers Rock, Sade’s first proper album in eight years, is no different from the band’s other releases: a megahyped disc that’s basically just a knockoff of an earlier Sade album. In this case, the sonic blueprint is Love DeluxeLovers Rock is full of the same booming bass and digital beats that shaped that record’s electrified sound.
“By Your Side,” Lovers Rock’s lead single, is Sade’s most anticlimactic re-entry statement yet. Bearing too close a resemblance to Whitney Houston’s “My Love Is Your Love”which bears too close a resemblance to Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”to pass itself off as genuinely original, “By Your Side,” with its rigidly programmed rhythm track and vocalese lead vocals, sounds like a band trying desperately to sound contemporaryand failing miserably. Over the course of its long career, Sade has incrementally dumbed down its arrangements, moving from richly textured pop to monochromatic pseudo-bluesy grooves.
Stuart Matthewman’s saxophone playing has never been exceptional, but it did charge songs like “Your Love Is King” and “Hang On to Your Love” with a certain bewitching elegance. On Lovers Rock, he puts aside his sax and focuses instead on folksy acoustic-guitar doodling. And Andrew Hale’s jazz-inflected piano accompaniments and riffs are reduced to glossy, sustained keyboard chords and bland synth programming, while Paul S. Denman’s nimble bass is amped so high that it sounds thuddy and imprecise. All of which overwhelms Adu’s vaporous alto. She’s never been a powerhouse, but now her voice is simply lost among its surroundingswhich probably explains why it’s been overdubbed so much. Unfortunately, Adu’s voice has neither the flexibility nor the range of hues required to harmonize with itself successfully.
Despite its new setting, Sade’s lyrical subject matter hasn’t changed at all. Adu remains the terminally lovestruck, perpetually wounded soubrette, played by all manner of smooth operators. She never has the upper hand in her rocky romantic affairs and, for the most part, the predictable breakups are never her fault. For all their intended sophistication, Sade’s love songs are emotionally simple, with two basic modes: supreme bliss and paralyzing heartache. When love is good, as in “Somebody Already Broke My Heart,” Adu’s paramours are godlike: “You came along when I needed a saviour.” But unsurprisingly, many of those saints turn out to be mortal sinners, as in “King of Sorrow,” in which Adu whines about a lover’s ungratefulnessbut also insists that she “cook you a soup that/Warms your soul.”
Granted, Adu could never get away with the neck-swerving bitchiness of Mary J. Blige or Faith Evans. But in these days of Girl Power, her upscale-but-innocent chanteuse persona seems like an anachronism, and you long for her to throw some go-fuck-yo’self diva attitude. She does toughen up a bit on the plaintive “Every Word,” in which she expresses her bitterness to a betraying lover. But Adu’s mournful wails of “I was loving you like a child/All the time you were smiling the same smile” still convey a sense of naiveté and defeat. More affirming is the ruminative hymn “It’s Only Love That Gets You Through,” where her smoldering voice croons, “You forgive those who have trespassed against you/And you know tenderness comes from pain/It’s amazing how you love.” It’s the kind of wisdom you’d expect from someone like Tina Turnerbut only after she’d kicked the abuser into the gutter.
Lovers Rock has no shortage of such rocky-love songs, but the band does sneak in a bit of social commentary now and then. “Slave Song” and “Immigrant” explore race relations, but the arrangements of both are rather pedestrian. Much more successful is the radiant “The Sweetest Gift,” dedicated to England’s Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity, which cares for terminally ill children. Built around a lonesome guitar melody that Neil Young would envy and stripped of superfluous vocal overdubs, the track finds Adu singing picturesque lyrics about communing with nature as she asks the moon to shine its light on the unfortunate children: “And then the wind pulls the clouds across the moon/Your light fills the darkest room/And I can see the miracle that/Keeps us from falling.” In just two minutes, “The Sweetest Gift” gets more soulful and sophisticated than anything else on Lovers Rock, mostly because, for once, Adu ain’t talkin’ ’bout love.
But the trite love ballads still dominate. And unless Sade has plans to remodel its romantic piffle into something sturdier, the band will soon find itself about as iconic as Spandau Ballet. CP