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Album review: 'Soldier of Love' by Sade

February 5, 2010 |  1:26 pm

The refined vocalist takes a more aggressive approach than usual.

Sade First, a moratorium: no more mentions of Sade and products for the bath in the same paragraph. The impossibly refined vocalist Sade Adu and her faithful band reinvented singer-songwriterly soul in the 1980s, and its sparse output since then still sets the standard for the field.

If Sade were, say, Nick Drake or Bill Withers or Elliott Smith -- male singer-songwriters with a similar gift for expressing introspection, and for honoring the sotto voce side of musical dynamics -- her work would not constantly be compared to Lavender-Verbena Mineral Soak.

Perhaps disgust with being branded as terminally relaxing inspired the title track of Sade's latest studio release. Its moody martial beat and (subtly!) aggressive vocals bespeak Grace Jones more than Norah. "Soldier of Love" is unique in its confrontational tone, but it connects to the other best tracks on this album, which employ minimalism and the rules of cool to carefully reconstruct various musical styles.

"Be That Easy" lopes along using the cowboy-song beat that the Jones most indebted to Sade so often uses, yet its bleak lyric lends a very different color to the theme of the wandering heart. "In Another Time" offers the most delicate spin possible on gospel music, reworking the dynamics of call and response until they're as subtle as a tap on the shoulder.

"Bring Me Home" reconsiders trip hop by making a connection to Arabic music. On more familiar ground, "Babyfather" works Sade's style of gently skanking reggae, with a sweetly told story of a child's journey from twinkle in the eye to beloved reality.

All of these songs work not only because of Sade's perfect phrasing but because the band (permanent members Stuart Matthewman on guitar, sax and programming, the keyboardist Andrew Hale and the bassist Paul S. Denman, augmented by half a dozen trusted friends) is expert at getting the most from the limited gesture.

"Babyfather" is one of only a few hopeful lyrics on "Soldier of Love" -- another good reason not to lounge in the tub while listening to Sade is that you might be tempted to slit your wrists. The mix of musical restraint, and sad, sad words sometimes creates a static feeling: There's just no hook in a meditation like "Morning Bird," and it somehow becomes forgettable. But those moments are infrequent on this release, which will surely be treasured by Sade's many fans, if dismissed by those who can only see her and the band's indigo-colored surfaces.

--Ann Powers

"Soldier of Love"
3.5 stars (out of four)