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Class ?

Main Category: Lush Pop
Also applicable: Jazz Rock, Singer-Songwriters
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



Disclaimer: this page is not written from the point of view of a Sade fanatic and is not generally intended for narrow-perspective Sade fanatics. If you are deeply offended by criticism, non-worshipping approach to your favourite artist, or opinions that do not match your own, do not read any further. If you are not, please consult the guidelines for sending your comments before doing so. For information on reviewing principles, please see the introduction. For specific non-comment-related questions, consult the message board.

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Year Of Release: 1984

As you start digging deeper into every musical style, no matter how bland or boring or dumb it may seem, you're pretty much bound to discover at least a few gems in each and every one of them. Diamond Life defines "adult contemporary" if there ever was a definition of the term, yet it's a minor masterpiece of the genre, which can totally change your mind on it in general - a little bit of goodwill included, that is.

Before we get to the songs and the sound, let's remember that "Sade", initially at least, was a band, not just a gal - and one person in that band at least is almost as much (or even more) responsible for that sound than Sade Adu herself; that is guitar and sax player Stuart Matthewman, who, indeed, played all the guitars and saxes on the album (a pretty rare combination, eh?), and also co-wrote most of the songs with Sade. Together, they got this sound which at first seems extremely ordinary. You know - kind of a soft jazz thingie, with lulling Paul Simon-like keyboards, saxes, soft chuckling percussion, and suchlike. Sting and Kenny G and Phil Collins come to mind immediately. BUT: it's pretty dumb when you realize that, but this sound did not really exist until 1984. Well, okay, I know of one band that did it before 1984, and that's Steely Dan. Steely Dan are obviously a big influence on here.

But Steely Dan were history in 1984, and pop-writing people were mostly concentrating on electronics at the time. In dire contrast, most of the instrumentation on Diamond Life is non-electronic; apart from the keyboards (where actual pianos are used just as often as synths, and they never ever resort to using these generic Casio monsters), you got your basic drum-bass-guitar-sax arrangements, nothing else. The instrumental melodies themselves aren't much to think of, but that's pretty much in the Steely Dan tradition as well; they're there to establish a decent, or occasionally, haunting backdrop to the vocals, and given that the band is tight, well oiled, and always eager to establish a strong groove (after all, most of them had already played for years in the "funk congregation" Pride), I have no problem with that. Which leaves us with the vocals, and they're impeccable.

Almost every song on here is crafted carefully enough to provide you with an unforgettable hook, even if some of these hooks might be way too repetitive to seem truly outstanding; and Sade's vocal delivery is smooth, slick, and unnerving, but quite unique - even considering that she can be firmly categorized as one of those "cold" singerines as opposed to the "hot" ones. I've once encountered a review of this album which accused Sade of sounding too 'phoney' - nothing could be more ridiculous than that, because in order to come across as 'phoney' you have to have at the very least an overexaggerated 'emotional' delivery, and Sade gets on by sounding as emotionally-detached as possible, never too loud, never too quiet, never too trebly, never too "mumbly", yet with an unmistakable profound charm of her own that prevents her from seeming bland.

The songs themselves don't pretend to much - mostly standard love songs with lyrics ranging somewhat above average, occasionally alternating with a quick social comment or two (c'mon now, surely you wouldn't expect an intelligent lady of Nigerian origin refraining from making a social comment? She's sure more qualified for the job than Mr Springsteen!). You probably know the main hit from the album, 'Smooth Operator' - which, strange enough, has 'smooth' as part of its title when it's actually the smoothest song on the album, I guess. And yeah, it starts out in an innocent and kinda boring jazz-shuffle way, but then bang! there's this amazing shift into more menacing territory - the 'no need to ask, 'cause he's a smooth operator...' hook. I also dare to say that Matthewson's sax is incredibly tasteful and often fills in the emotional range where Sade seems to be lacking it - I mean, if we can enjoy the sax playing on the Dan's loungey stuff, we sure can enjoy it here.

The other two hits (actually, the three songs start off the album) were the slightly inferior, but still catchy 'Your Love Is King', and the grinding bass-drum heavy 'Hang On To Your Love' which just gets me every time I hear it. This is how adult contemporary ought to be done: music that is perfectly and absolutely inoffensiv e for radioplay, yet does not in the slightest violate good taste notions by being inventive and inspired. It could actually be a hot heavy funk number if they wanted to kick some ass - instead, they make it quiet and peaceful (only the menacing bassline betrays the potential), but it still works perfectly.

But the record doesn't end with the hits. The "lite-funk", for instance, returns once again on the moody, sexual 'Cherry Pie', with terrific bass work once again and a refrain to die for (I'm not sure I could take the line 'you were sweet as cherry pie' seriously from anybody but Sade - imagine it in the hands, uh, throat of Janet Jackson, for instance!); and the social comment is particularly hard-hitting on 'Sally', Sade's ode to an unknown prostitute where she tells us that 'she's doing our dirty work, she's the only one who cares'. Well... yeah, that's true. And that's a good song, too. They even have the nerve to implant a few dissonant piano chords right there, in the midst of the 'chaotic' instrumental passage.

So, actually, the only song I actively dislike on the album is its closing statement, 'Why Can't We Live Together'. It starts out as a great ethno groove (with another top-notch bassline), but then just degenerates into a simplistic chanted affirmation of racial equality - which is all right by me, but the song strikes me as pretty unsophisticated and undynamic compared to the others. I guess she just bit off a little more than she could chew at the moment, although you may disagree if you happen to be a diehard Sade fan. But that sure doesn't spoil the overall feeling. I dub this the greatest adult contemporary album to have ever existed (even if, for understandable reasons, my knowledge of the genre is scant) and urge everybody to get it, although be warned, bucko: this is adult contemporary. If you're gonna come back and shoot me cold and dead for recommending an album that doesn't have an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo on it, or a 20-minute prog instrumental, or a Ramones cover, don't say I didn't warn you before pulling the trigger.



Year Of Release: 1985

Not as good - actually, for me, a major disappointment. Adult contemporary fans need not worry; Promise preserves the atmosphere of Diamond Life on an intact level, so if you use these albums as soothing background music while doing your calculus, or cleaning your house, or making love, or whatever else is there in your perverse mind, you probably won't even feel the difference.

But unfortunately, it almost seems as if Sade was using the same logic, because the songs on here are generally less interesting. Where Diamond Life had a special hook, gimmick, or weird treatment reserved for every number, Promise is much less adventurous. For one thing, there are almost no vocal hooks around this time: not a single song will leave a wild mystical trace of '...cause he's a smoooooth operator...' or '...she's doing our dirty work!...' in your head, I guess. And it doesn't help that the actual lyrics aren't all that great either; apparently, Promise is sort of a loose concept album, presenting Sade's views on romance, love and the loss of it, and she gets so caught up in the idea that she seems to think it alone would justify the existence of this record. And it's a long record, too, running for almost one exhausting hour, which it definitely doesn't deserve.

The first two songs are easily the best. 'Is It A Crime' is the perfect opener, a sprawling gigantic broken heart epic with more dynamics than the rest of the songs taken together. The way the band goes from light and soothing into angry and powerful and then back, all in a blink of an eye, is nothing short of amazing, and even if you get bored with the six-minute length, please have the patience to sit through - the song is fully redeemed by the last desperate ' it... a... crime?' which symbolizes the final breakdown (and also has a chilling effect on me as that voice reverberates through the room more powerfully than ever). And then there's the hit 'The Sweetest Taboo', which isn't nowhere near as catchy as 'Smooth Operator' or 'Your Love Is King', but still bounces along vivaciously with its pseudo-Latin rhythm, and has a decent vocal melody.

It's all downhill from there. It's not that the rest of the songs are bad, nosiree. Sade's got that style working for her, and it's still as tasteful and truly romantic (without any extra sappiness or cheesiness) as adult contemporary ever gets. But unfortunately, there exists such a record as Diamond Life. On that record, Sade displayed the same style, just as profound and beautiful as on here, and was actually capable of loading it with additional hooks and curious melody twists. So if I can get two in one, surely you won't expect me settling for just one. I mean, 'War Of The Hearts' isn't pathetic or anything. Maybe in its own way it's even addictive. But it drags on for a fuckin' seven minutes without giving a single reason why it should be so goddamn long. There's no development or anything, you pretty much know all about this tune after just two minutes. Considering that I've listened to the song five times, and that each listen thus can count for at least three, that makes fifteen times and I still can't remember how it goes. Okay, maybe I'm not supposed to, but I don't agree with that.

Stuff like 'You're Not The Man' is very pretty, I'll admit, but again, I want memorability. Even the best of styles can get annoying when there's no memorability attached, and this one just gets predictable way too quickly. Same moody keyboards, same lazy sax, and an even slower tempo. And yes, when Sade croons out 'you're not the man who would bleed for me', it's touching, but it's not unique any more. It ain't fresh any more. It's just... inferior. Also, the decision to throw on a five-minute instrumental ('Punch Drunk') was a total mistake - without Sade's idiosyncratic vocals, this sounds way too close to elevator jazz to be considered truly masterful. Sure, it's better than most elevator jazz anyway, but only an expert trained ear could tell you that (not mine, by the way - it's merely my intuition that tells me so, and I've been known to be wrong), whereas with Sade singing you can always tell there's something untrivial going on.

The record picks up some steam with the more upbeat, funkier 'Never As Good As The First Time' on the second side, but then again lapses into the usual coma (the only weird thing being Sade's somewhat forced Spanish singing on 'Fear'), and in the end, leaves me unsatisfied. Too bad. I'm just going to have to assume that it was a typical "second album factor" - that Sade had enough time to quality-assure the Diamond Life material with her old band, but that Promise was just way too rushed and unpolished. Fortunately, Sade would never rush an album again.


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