Sade soldiers into the 21st century

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The Independent Culture

Longevity is rare in an industry of ready-made stars and one-hit-wonders, but Sade of "Smooth Operator" fame is back after a decade away with a new album out February 9.

Before "Soldier of Love", her latest album, "Lover's Rock" in 2000 was the last outing by Sade and her band, a time when number one hits stayed weeks at the top of the chart and piracy was something that happened at sea.

Times change.

Sony Music did not allow "Soldier of Love" out of their sight for more than 24 hours when the disc came to Paris for preview listens, as the record company tries to avoid tracks being leaked to the many eager ears around the world.

The Nigerian-British singer is unusual in the pop industry for lasting this long without making many albums - "Soldier of Love" will be only the band's sixth in 25 years.

Musically, the band that brought "Your Love is King" with their debut in 1984, or "No Ordinary Love" in 1993, are one of the few R'n'B groups who use the music as a platform for their lead singer to show off her vocals.

From the first track on the new album, the reasons for Sade's worldwide success come flooding back: the velvety voice is unmistakable, and fits perfectly with those (love-them-or-loathe-them) chanting, plaintive choruses.

"The Moon and the Sky" is so familiar that its opening position in the album running order seems strategic, a way of easing listeners in and giving them a recognisable slice of what they fondly remember.

The familiarity is soon over as drumbeats rattle out for "Soldier of Love", the first single, which incorporates the rhythm and sounds of a military march and electric guitars to make a rousing, defiant survival anthem.

Speculation could be made around the subtext of the song, especially given the 10-year silence, but Sade has never lived her private life in the public eye and derides the media appetite for a good story, whatever the facts.

"It's terrible, this Fleet Street mentality", she says referring to the British newspaper scene, "if something seems simple and easy, there must be something funny going on".

In the last 10 years, 51-year-old Sade has devoted her time to family life, and believes these domestic days enriched her music, rather than took her away from it.

"You can only grow as an artist as long as you allow yourself the time to grow as a person", she says, now living in the English southwest countryside after years in London, where she first moved to study fashion.

"I only make records when I feel I have something to say", adds Sade, who has resisted overdoing marketing or television appearances.

"Sade is not a brand," she asserts, and if you're not careful "you become a tool of the record industry".

Her passion is writing and performing. "It's when I get on stage with the band and we play that I know that people love the music, the feeling overwhelms me".

"Soldier of Love" incorporates a wide range of percussion and instruments including cellos, violins, piano and the marching drum.

It is not experimental or very innovative musically, neither is it easily classifiable as R'n'B or soul, the genres mostly associated with Sade.

The reggae-inspired "Babyfather", for example, playfully brings out Sade's African roots and her faint accent comes out as she chants "Daddy loves you child" with the young backing singers.

Because of her rich, velvet voice, Sade always sounds mellow on her tracks, even lazy, whether she is singing about finally finding love, in "The Safest Place", or about getting rid of an old flame in "Skin".

There are hints at a more embattled tale from the title and also closing tracks, "my heart has been a lonely warrior, at war so you can be sure, in my heart your love has found the safest hiding place".

If there has been a fight to get here, Sade's voice will never betray hard work, but for the pop industry entering the 21st century, she is a real soldier for still standing on stage after all these years.