Stronger Than Pride

The biggest pop icons of the ’80s were loud, brash and calculatedly eccentric: Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, Annie Lennox. Notable exception Bruce Springsteen was often positioned as an antidote to the sexualracial politics at play in the work of his contemporaries. He was the poster boy for an America so retro-simple that he had to furiously distance himself from his press in order to reclaim the bite of his own music. Yet beneath their marketing personas, most of these artists were actually talented -- some phenomenally so. It figures that Madonna, the least talented, most contrived of the bunch, is the one who‘s had the greatest commercial staying power, the deepest cultural impact. Sade, meanwhile, were the kids sitting in the back of the class, eyes cast downward and pens pressed to pad; they were the ones who rarely spoke, but when they did it was with clarity and perceptiveness.

Prince owns the rights to the title of musical genius. Michael is the king of pop, despite questionable sanity. And Madonna rules the world. But it’s Sade who‘ve emerged as the most consistently satisfying pop figures from that MTV-sculpted era, steadfast in following their own course regardless of trend or fashion, staying “relevant” simply by holding on to their integrity. (Ironically, out of all the ’80s star pupils, they were the outfit given the least love by MTV, never really fitting in with the station‘s lowest-common-denominator programming. Nothing’s changed in that regard except that the denominator‘s dropped so much lower.) Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Sade are the only ones who‘ve not only maintained their stature, but also deepened their artistry.

The group’s latest CD, Lovers Rock, has been in stores since just before Christmas, nestled in or near the Billboard Top 10 almost the entire time. That‘s testimony to the fact that music fans are starved for substance. And it’s substance that‘s made the disc one of the few Year 2000 big-name releases worth carrying into this year. In strokes broad and subtle it shows Sade, singersongwriterfront woman, as that almost extinct creature in modern pop: woman as adult. We’re privy to all her roles and guises -- goddess, mother, lover, daughter, artist. But these roles aren‘t telegraphed in quotes or bold italic; they overlap and flow, the boundaries between them smudged or nonexistent, just as in life.

Sade, the band, has pared down to its essence of soul music from across the diaspora: R&B, hip-hop, dub, folk and spirituals, with reggae as the foundation for it all. Production and musicianship are both unadorned, so while the outfit’s trademark vibe -- sexy, melancholy, honest -- is intact, the sound is raw, even ragged in spots. It‘s like they’ve spent the last eight years (the time lapsed since their last album) listening to a lot of Sly & Robbie and Mad Professor. In the past, Sade‘s sultry voice and words of emotional distress were played for tension against sleek production; Stuart Matthewman’s foregrounded sax rounded the musical edges while underscoring the grief and occasional joy in the lyrics. Now the music keeps emotional pace with the vocals and words. The glossy jazz inflections that have steadily diminished since the group‘s third (and in some ways most radical) album, 1988’s Stronger Than Pride, have been all but stripped away. What‘s left is a sublime work of emotion and compassion, artistic growth and personal catharsis.

Lovers Rock opens with the single “By Your Side,” a vow of loyalty and unconditional love. With its slide guitar, low-simmer keyboard and lilting groove, this affirmation of friendship evokes Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” in its melody, capturing the freeform sadness of the one being spoken to even as it offers him comfort. It‘s a beautiful song that’s given a pronounced reggae flavor on the import-only CD single of remixes, with the Neptunes‘ overhaul one of the loveliest tracks of last year. Lovers ends with the spare, hymnlike “It’s Only Love That Gets You Through,” which has the singer reaching out to a woman who‘s struggled through life without becoming bitter, who’s held on to her generosity and decency by refusing to succumb to the dog-eat-dogI-got-mine-and-I‘m-coming-for-yours mentality that permeates both our music and our culture. “Girl you are rich,” sings Sade, “even with nothingAnd you know tenderness comes from painIt’s amazing how you loveAnd love is kindand love can give and get no gain.”

In between those opening and closing tracks are songs that deal with racism, maternal love and romantic betrayal, all linked by a distinctly feminine and empathetic voice. The beat-driven “Immigrant” was inspired by the experiences of Sade‘s Nigerian father upon his arrival in England. The singer’s love for him is apparent, with carefully assembled details of his appearance (“In his brown shoesHis short suitHis white shirtAnd his cuffs a little frayed”) culminating in a daughter‘s unabashed adoration: “Standing there looking like an angel.” But her gift for poetry and insight comes to bear in the way she articulates her father’s realization of racism, in her larger observation of the fact that negative reaction -- particularly in regard to race -- is so often that which gives us our most powerful impression of ourselves: “He didn‘t know what it was to be black’til they gave him his change but didn‘t want to touch his hand.” At the song’s center is the sobering bottom-line question “Isn‘t it hard enough just to make it through a day?” That daughter’s protectiveness gives way to a mother‘s awe in the lullaby “The Sweetest Gift,” which was written for Sade’s 4-year-old daughter. Against a gently strummed guitar she croons, “And then the wind pulls the clouds across the moonYour light fills the darkest roomAnd I can see the miracle that keeps us from falling.”

It wouldn‘t be a Sade album if songs of heartache weren’t prominently featured, and Lovers‘ standouts are “King of Sorrow” and “Somebody Already Broke My Heart.” The former opens with Sade wailing, “I’m crying everyone‘s tears,” and the listener is instantly pulled into an elliptical but logical rendering of pain: “Just another day, and nothing’s any goodThe DJ‘s playing the same songI have so much to doI have to carry on.” The hook is in her voice, in the contradictory resignation and flamed grief, couched in a lilting soul groove. “Somebody” is straight-up R&B sans the bullshit -- adolescent writing, cynical posturing -- that’s infected the genre recently. It‘s about that moment when you make yourself completely vulnerable to your partner without knowing for sure -- and how can you? -- what he really feels, what his true intentions are. The song boils down to the confession: If you want to know if I can be broken, I can. And it’s been done. That she proceeds to profess love and need anyway is an act of courage that shames the machisma cluttering the charts.

What distinguishes this record from its four predecessors is the overall sense of peacefulness it emanates -- even as the lady sings her blues. In the past, Sade‘s songs have been testimonials given right from the scene of the crime, tears still flowing. Here, there’s some distance, underscored in the title cut. “Lovers Rock” is the name for a specific genre of reggae love songs; knowing that gives the track extra dimension, added heft. An ode to both the unpredictability and the power of love, the song opens with the juxtaposition “I am in the wildernessYou are in the music in the man‘s car next to me,” which not only establishes how “lost” the protagonist was, but poetically notes that love and salvation are found in unexpected places, that they roll in from the periphery. And when she tells her man, “You are the lover’s rockThe rock that I cling to,” it‘s not just stability she’s found in him; she‘s finally found her music.


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