Sade, a Smooth Operator, sings of No Ordinary Love, and Is That A Crime?
“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.
Somebody already broke my heart.” These seem to be simple sentiments and sometimes, not always, simple songs, but the feelings and attitudes they convey—despair, fear, devoted love, friendship, and understanding—have the largest place to play in human life; and the songs I’ve quoted thus far require one’s whole attention while listening.
“All About Our Love” is an affirmation of love. “Whatever may come, we can get through it,” is one line, and though reassuring, it does not, in this case, carry any more weight than it would in life. That may say something about the transparency of Adu’s lyrics.
Sade Adu sings in “Slave Song” the lines “I pray to the Almighty let me not to him do as he has unto me. Teach my beloved children who have been enslaved to reach for the light continually” over an almost stuttering rhythm, an almost tribal beat, possibly a form of syncopation. That does not seem merely noble sentiment, but a lurking knowledge that one can easily become vengeful, destructive, ruining not simply an enemy but one’s self.
However, when the singer has a conversation with the moon in which she asks the moon to keep her beloved safe in “The Sweetest Gift” the image is at once timeless and a bit too much. (I have read that the song is a lullaby for her daughter, a fact that may qualify, or disqualify, my reservation.) An interesting though not unpredictable aspect of Adu’s lyrics—and vision—is how often the innocence of a human spirit embodied in a word or gesture is followed by the world’s (or just one man’s) betrayal of that spirit, as when in “Every Word” Adu sings, “All the time you were smiling the same smile, I was loving you like a child. I really trusted you. Every word you said, every word you said. Love is what the word was.” One may more expect betrayal in politics, in the move from one nation to another, in the jostling of one group against another. “Immigrant,” written by Adu with Janusz Podrazik, describes an immigrant who has not been welcomed: “He didn’t know what it was to be black ‘til they gave him his change but didn’t want to touch his hand. To even the toughest among us that would be too much.” I find those two lines striking whenever I hear them. I imagine the scene, remember similar scenes in my own life in my native country, the United States of America, and think that those lines and others in the song capture not only the failure to live up to our full humanity but also a betrayal of the often spouted Christianity: “He was turned away from every door like Joseph,” and “The secret of their fear and their suspicion standing there looking like an angel, in his brown shoes, his short suit, his white shirt, and his cuffs a little frayed. Coming from where he did, he was such a dignified child.”
The title song “Lovers Rock” seems to be more about the spirit of music itself (the urge to create, connect, or express love?), rather than an ordinary personal acquaintance: “I am in the wilderness. You are in the music in the man’s car next to me. Somewhere in my sadness I know I won’t fall apart completely, and in all this, and in all my life, you are the lovers’ rock, the rock that I cling to.”
The last song on Lovers Rock is “It’s Only Love That Gets You Through,” also written by Adu and Podrazik, and it’s about a young woman who has gone through hard times while still managing to love. “You know tenderness comes from pain. It’s amazing how you love,” sings Adu.