After an eight-year recording hiatus, Sade is back with Lovers Rock, a session that isn't a radical departure for the vocalist but sounds practically revolutionary when compared to the low-class, anti-intellectual, aggressive posturing of contemporary pop music. Her music is the embodiment of finesse, understatement and elegance, traits that can be traced all the way back to Sade's pre-music-career days when she studied fashion design in London.
On songs like "Flow," a casual listener can treat Lovers Rock like seductive soft-jazz background music, letting the melody and the vocals flow in and out of consciousness like some reverie. Or you can immerse yourself in the darkly luminous "King of Sorrow," with its shimmering guitar and strings that hang suspended in the air like a dark cloud.
Either way, Sade's band -- Stuart Matthewman (sax and guitar), Andrew Hale (keyboards) and Paul Spencer Denman (bass) -- provides the perfectly understated accompaniment needed to highlight her vocals. On the title track and "The Sweetest Gift," even the percussion is jettisoned in favor of a simple lyrical track.
Like most pop artists, Sade writes songs primarily about love and loss. Unlike most pop artists, she includes material that reflects her life as the daughter of a Nigerian immigrant to England. On "Immigrant," she sings, "Coming from where he did / he was turned away from / every door like Joseph." And on "Slave Song," Sade sings, "I pray to the Almighty / Let us not do as he has unto us / Teach my beloved children / I've been a slave / but reach for the light continually."
As she has in the past, Sade still offers love as the healing ointment for many of life's wounds. On the autobiographical "It's Only Love That Gets You Through," she writes from the perspective that suffering leads to an understanding of tenderness, forgiveness and love. Her writing, particularly on "The Sweetest Gift" and "Immigrant," suggests a higher level of literacy than one usually finds in pop music.
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Lovers Rock reflects only a small shift from the hit-making formula that worked for Sade in the '80s, but sometimes leaving well enough alone is a wise move. In terms of arrangement, composition and sound, Sade still comes off better than most of the pop divas. Leave the teen music to the kids. This is for adults.