In the mid-’80s, a new kind of jazz-pop emerged in the UK, mostly assembled by former members of post-punk and new wave bands. They blended jazz, bossa nova, soul, and some of the swollen negative space of dub into a sleek and buoyant composite. The sound was streamlined and modern, inasmuch as anything that scans as “modern” is just an effectively redesigned past. It was initially embodied in records by Working Week, the Style Council, Everything But the Girl, and—the only band included in this brief genre that, as of 2017, still records and plays together—Sade.
Sade began as a reduced lineup of the Latin jazz band Pride. Stuart Matthewman auditioned for Pride after reading an ad in a magazine seeking a saxophone player for a “fashion conscious jazz-funk band.” At the audition, he met Sade Adu, then one of Pride’s backup singers; after Matthewman joined the band, he and Adu started writing together. As Pride eventually fragmented, the band Sade solidified, with the final lineup including bassist Paul Denman and keyboardist Andrew Hale. During the sessions for their first record, Diamond Life, they would listen to Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, and Nina Simone, and try to synthesize the sounds into a more seamless design. Often the mixture would produce crisp staircases of soul, like “Your Love Is King,” or liquid-crystal pop-funk, like “Hang on to Your Love.” Sometimes they slipped into a less material space; in live performances of the Diamond Life B-side “Love Affair With Life,” Hale’s piano, Matthewman’s saxophone, and Adu’s voice are held together by the song’s vast margins, given a ghostly shape by its silences. They were capable of producing a floating, haunted kind of music, and over time their attentions and their albums grew more absorbed by it. Just two albums later, on 1988’s Stronger Than Pride, songs like “I Never Thought I’d See the Day” and “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” seem to flow out of and recede back into a gently-constructed nowhere.
As their first U.S. Top 10 hit “Smooth Operator” described the jet-setting lifestyle of a debonair, dangerous, Don Juan-type, Sade came to signify a kind of cosmopolitan exotica—where one could travel to distant places on luxury airplanes, absorb an endless, glossy flow of champagne, and slowly sift through a hangover in a hotel bar. Their music was a portal through which one could effortlessly simulate such an experience, a virtual vacation in which the more severe physical edges of reality had been dissolved. Sade had also acquired, through their numerous love songs, the reputation of a generally romantic band. In reality, Adu’s songs are less romantic in form than they are glassy vehicles for a more introspective melancholy, seamless projections of love, devotion, and heartbreak that also seem to have just barely escaped the inner depth that produced them.
In 1992, Sade returned to the studio after a short break following their tour for Stronger Than Pride. They worked for four months, a shorter and less dislocated session than the ones that generated some of their previous recordings, and the album they made, Love Deluxe, is their most monolithic in sound. It is made of inhales. The album title comes from Adu’s concept of love: “The idea is that it’s one of the few luxury things that you can’t buy,” she said in an interview at the time. “You can buy any kind of love but you can’t get love deluxe.”
It’s this sense of blissful abstraction in which the album swims, a total slipstream of feeling and experience and longing in which one can lose themselves and their contexts. The band plays with an almost fluid dynamism, audible in the oceanic churn of Matthewman’s guitar on “No Ordinary Love,” or in the way Hale’s synth work tends to add long, drowsy auras to his piano chords. Matthewman is, in interviews, often quick to diminish the actual abilities of the band, and suggests they are guided less by supreme talent than by interplay. “I think one of the reasons we’ve been successful at what we do is that we’re all decent musicians, but we’re not great musicians,” he said. “I think we all play really well together.”
Sade had played against drum machines before, but Love Deluxe was the first time they recorded an album almost entirely without a live drummer, and the particular yawn and lurch of the programmed beats on Love Deluxe somewhat align it with the parallel development of trip-hop. Massive Attack’s Blue Lines had come out just a year earlier, and the distance between snare hits on songs like “No Ordinary Love” and “Cherish the Day” seems to open a space in which lushness and dread merge. (Trip-hop feels like a spiritual continuation of jazz-pop, but with the dub element having swallowed and warped everything else beyond recognition; it produced its jazziness less through polished holistic productions than through the harsh collision of samples.)
There’s also crispness, a vacuum-sealed quality to the percussion that links it to the Dallas Austin-produced R&B of the mid-’90s, e.g. Madonna’s “Secret.” The drums act as a skeleton around which the rest of the notes pulse, drift, and fuse into an immaculate surface, all of which feel like sensitive responses to the lunar gravity exerted by the band’s eponymous singer. The arrangements bend around Adu’s voice, its narcotic pull, the way that its range sounds finely sifted out of other potential vocal material, perfectly decanted.
By 1992, Adu had arrived at a particular economy in her expressions of desire and heartache; “No Ordinary Love” is a song about a relentless, almost sacrificial devotion, which seems to consume and replace the person giving it. “I gave you all that I had inside and you took my love/You took my love,” she sings as the band designs a kind of pulsing, amniotic fog around her vocal. In the music video, Adu plays a character that resembles the Little Mermaid; she sits on the ocean floor, reading a wedding magazine among great muscles of coral and fluttering plantlife. Lured by a sailor to the surface, she evolves legs and a wedding dress, and walks down a dock while throwing handfuls of rice over herself. She enters a dive bar, orders a glass of water, and pours salt into it, a visible gesture of survival which disconnects her from the people around her. She never encounters the sailor above water. It’s a perfect visual embodiment of a Sade song, in that it conveys the total isolation of desire, Adu’s mermaid caught not exactly in love, but in the continuum of fantasy and abstraction. In the end, she sits by the dock, consuming water from a bottle.
On Love Deluxe, Adu also writes her own character studies, though distinct from her earlier attempts in “Smooth Operator” and “Jezebel”; here she’s so thoroughly embedded in the perspectives that it becomes hard to distinguish her, or even them, from the feelings conveyed. “I collect ideas in my head all the time,” Adu said in an interview at the time. “The things that most depress you are often the things that you write about.” In “Feel No Pain,” she describes the suffocation and paralysis of unemployment; “Pearls” focuses on the trials of a woman in Somalia and the dignity of survival; “Like a Tattoo” forms itself out of the perspective of a war veteran Adu met in a Manhattan bar. “I remembered his hands,” she sings, “And the way the mountains looked/The light shot diamonds from his eyes.” It’s hard to tell whether Adu is remembering the soldier, or if she’s the soldier remembering someone he killed, or if the perspective has totally collapsed and is flowing back and forth unconsciously, less a documentary of something that happened than a kinetic sculpture of it, depicting an emotional vastness that floats somewhere beyond experience.
“Like a Tattoo” and “Pearls” are the most amorphous compositions on Love Deluxe; given their spartan instrumentation—one drumless, the other buoyed by strings—they feel as if they’ve been severed from their greater contexts and are floating in their own darknesses. But this darkness swells throughout the record, and marbles even the luminous compositions with shadow; it flows into Matthewman’s saxophone, which fills the margins of “Bullet Proof Soul” with smoke; it causes me to be unable to tell whether the guitar in “Cherish the Day” is spilling honeyed light into the song or is instead weeping.
Of course, this darkness could be native to the grammar Adu revisits most: love. This is a love with its genome completely unfolded, so that even when she sings of incandescent romantic delight, as on “Kiss of Life,” one is able to catch a glimpse of its origin, whether in loneliness, desire, or obsession. Conversely, in songs like “Cherish the Day” and “Bullet Proof Soul,” one is able to apprehend love’s expiration point, what it inevitably shores up against: its death. “It’s not hard to find love, it is to keep it,” Adu once said. “It’s something which is like [one of] the more mysterious things in life. It’s like death and it’s like birth, and it can’t really be completely explained.”
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/2ocvBA5