Sade, a Smooth Operator, sings of No Ordinary Love, and Is That A Crime?
“ I suspect that at the core of most personalities is mystery ”
An Appreciation of the Music of Sade Adu, Andrew Hale, Stuart Matthewman, and Paul S. Denman, who write and perform songs about friendship, love, and sympathy in both cosmopolitan and common lives in a world driven by money and roiled by politics
“Wisdom is the flame, wisdom is the brave warrior who will carry us into the sun. I pray that it’s swift though tears will come that fall like rain,” sings Sade Adu in the “Slave Song” on the band Sade’s album Lovers Rock (2000, Epic/Sony). “I see them gathered, see them on the shore. I turned to look once more. And he who knows me not takes me into the belly of darkness” is the beginning of an agony from which the song’s narrator and her descendents must be delivered. The lyrics create a mythic image of salvation while suggesting the history of slavery and the struggle that followed, lyrics that are subtle while still being clear. Although the band Sade, made up of Sade Adu, Andrew Hale, Stuart Matthewman, and Paul S. Denman, has written and performed songs with social and historical concerns, they are typically known for songs about friendship, love, and sympathy: “When you’re on the outside baby and you can’t get in, I will show you you’re so much better than you know. When you’re lost and you’re alone and you can’t get back again, I will find you darling and I’ll bring you home,” sings Sade on the first song, “By Your Side,” on Lovers Rock.
Friendship is one of the things I associate most with Sade, recalling one of the band’s early videos in which its members sat in a restaurant and walked down a street together, looking very smart, very chummy. Other associations are: humility, sincerity, musicianship, intelligence, and multiculturalism accepted as a fact. Helen Folasade Adu, reportedly the daughter of a Nigerian economics professor and an English nurse, was born in Nigeria but grew up in England. (The band carries her name and consequently is often thought of not as a band but as an individual.) Sade Adu is the principal lyricist for the group, and her method seems to be to admit feelings, quote conversations, describe actions, transcribe observations and perceptions, recall memories, use metaphor, sometimes amazingly fresh metaphors, offer advice and consolation, and declare meaning. Stuart Matthewman plays guitar, woodwinds, and saxophone, Andrew Hale keyboards, and Paul Denman bass; and the music has an acoustic sound—and one can imagine hearing it in a private club or small room, though the group fills large venues. Usually, though not always, the music seems more reflective and plainly declarative than expressive. Although the band has been well known since the mid-1980s, Sade Adu remains something of a mystery.
I suspect that at the core of most personalities is mystery—a hunger for experience, a capacity for pleasure, a need for thought and purpose, a desire to love, and an appreciation of beauty, a life force, that knows itself and knows intuitively there is no object that satisfies, no object that is its natural or sole focus, though it may choose from among those it is aware of. The mystery of who we are and why we want what we want is something we glimpse in other people, and usually the closer we get to the mystery, the more strange people seem; and the farther we are from the mystery, then, the easier it is to accept clichés and conventions about who people are, and the more normal they seem. What’s interesting about Adu and her collaborators is that their work together remains the primary language through which her personality and concerns, and possibly even theirs, can be discerned (though the other members have performed without Adu in a band called Sweetback).
Lovers Rock, almost quietly released after a long break, became another popular recording. Admirers and detractors might say that it is predictably a Sade record. (The lyrics are Adu’s and the music is credited to the entire band for all but two songs.) In “Flow,” love is described as a comfort of nature, with comparisons to sea and light, and Adu sings, “Take up your love and come to me,” as if it were the most probable mystical summons. The very affecting “King of Sorrow” has her “crying everyone’s tears. I have already paid for all my future sins.” Sometimes the only way to say something is to say it, without preamble or apology, and that’s what she does, as when she asks for care and truth in “Somebody Already Broke My Heart,” singing “Here I am, so don’t leave me stranded on the end of a line, hanging on the edge of a lie. I’ve been torn apart so many times, I’ve been hurt so many times before, so be careful and be kind.