It’s hard to think of a musician more evocative of the 1980’s than Sade Adu. Known, alongside her bandmates Paul Denman, Andrew Hale, and Stuart Matthewman, as simply Sade, her sophisticated poise and icy cool vocals came to soothe an era of rapid change, spiralling excess and social upheaval. The band’s music helped conjure a sense of serenity and escapism that was so sorely needed in the late 20th century – a fact which has since been confirmed by their gargantuan commercial success, which to date has seen them sell over 75 Million albums worldwide.
Whilst their highly-polished aesthetic has since drawn criticism for its perceived lack of emotional depth, Sade’s music nonetheless subtly captures both the zeitgeist mood of an era and the distillation of a multitude of musical styles, signalling something much deeper below the apparently placid surface. On 1988’s Stronger Than Pride this theme is more than apparent, as the band settled into their groove as one of the world’s most successful musical acts. Whilst the major touchstones of their signature style remained consistent, subtle undercurrents of irony and societal commentary surged within their ostensibly calm waters. Clearly, there was more to Sade than met the eye.
By 1988 she had become the figurehead of a whole new style of languorous jazz-soaked soul which had sparked a quiet revolution in the charts – away from the blocky, synthetic brutalism of the early 80s and its post-punk era into something almost the exact opposite; pacifying yet strangely radical in its tranquility. Adu possessed the unique physical beauty so often demanded by commercial society and label marketing departments, yet seemed intent on exposing this element of her appeal with a dead-pan placidity, knowingly holding the “consumer” at arms length. Whether or not audiences picked up on this subtlety was beside the point – Sade’s music worked on two distinct levels; deep sincerity and sly irony. As theNew-Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones amusingly notes, “the band could have sneaked a Situationist manifesto into its material while everyone sat still, hypnotized by the mystery of Sade, the person.”
But on Stronger Than Pride, the band’s third full-length, the concept and style of Sade became more nuanced than ever. Musically more streamlined and self-aware, the band built a languid atmosphere suffused with gently percolating bass lines, billowing synthesisers and fragile percussion, which sounds impossibly smooth and organic – even by their standards. This may have been through osmosis – its not hard to imagine the picturesque surroundings of Compass Point studios, in the Bahamas, having a deep impact on the album’s opulent, sparkling soundscape.
In comparison to some of today’s excessively affected pop-stars, Sade’s voice on Stronger Than Prideappears profoundly self-assured, confident to dwell in muted tones and restrained dynamics , pushing things further only when truly necessary. Even in the higher register of songs such as ‘Keep Looking’, her voice seems to carry itself on soft exhalations, as if it were an effortless by-product of simply breathing. Thanks to a restrained use of vocal overdubs this quality of Sade’s voice is smartly preserved, with Mike Pela and Robin Millar’s delicate washes of reverb and echo only serving to heighten and spatialise its velveteen texture.
But whether carefully crafted or not, there is a sense of irony and detachment to Stronger Than Pride which feels deeply in tune with the ‘80s zeitgeist. Despite the lyrics confessing to helpless desire on songs such as ‘Paradise’ and the title track, Sade’s audible lack of emotional outpouring creates an impression of cognitive dissonance which is strangely empowering for the singer – a slyly feminist subversion of the romantic power dynamics so often portrayed in popular culture. As The Quietus’ Chad Parkhill comments: “When Adu sings “Ooooh, what a life” she sounds as bored as an heiress surveying the prospect of another anhedonic week of champagne and cocaine.” The contradiction is part of what makes Sade such a solitary figure in contemporary pop – she seems to draw into focus the artifice which so many others would try to hide.
Sade’s output since has remained sparse, the release of a new track appearing once in a Blue Moon to remind us of the uncanny nature of both her voice and career. You could be forgiven for thinking that Sade’s reign of influence has passed. The truth however, is that thanks to a shrewdly negotiated record deal, Sade still holds all the cards; as an executive at Epic, her record label, notes: “Who’s going to argue with a woman who’s sold 50 million albums? She’s more powerful than anyone working at the label, including the president.”
And thanks to this creative freedom and selectivity Sade’s career has remained almost perfectly preserved in our collective consciousness, unencumbered by the excessive releases which so often bloat the twilight years of previously iconic artists. Stronger than Pride remains a perfect encapsulation of the inherent dignity and poise of Sade’s work, typifying her serene stylisation in all it’s bold contradictions. And whilst we may know her luxurious music intimately, 30 years later we’re still left spellbound and confounded by the artist behind the curtain.
The album is available to buy here.