Ever since Sade Adu first appeared in the mid-1980s, the singer and her band have perfected their own brand of sensual slow jam — equal parts luscious and languorous. With the gentlest of arrangements and Adu's silken voice, Sade's best songs glimmer with the warmth of the afterglow, like the last moments between sex and sleep.
It's safe to say that Sade doesn't constantly seek to radically reinvent herself, despite extraordinary breaks of eight to ten years between recent albums. That kind of consistency is both a boon and a curse. On the one hand, there's something to be said for staying faithful to a particular aesthetic, and few pop acts have been better at that than Sade. Adu's voice does much of the work here — she has a distinct coolness to her timbre, a penchant for elongating her vowels and an accented inflection that have become her signatures over the years, whether in the new "The Moon and the Sky" or in 1984's "Smooth Operator."
However, the "Sade Sound" carries the risk that whatever subtle difference exists between efforts becomes dramatically magnified. Though parts of Soldier of Love might resemble its decade-old predecessor, Lovers Rock, the two exude very different feels. Lovers Rock made instant, indelible impressions with its beautifully melodic hooks and songwriting gems (think "I'm crying everyone's tears"). It was a perfect pop album, just on Sade's terms.
This new album lacks that kind of aural stickiness. On the page, an opening line such as "The ground is full of broken stones / The last leaf has fallen" looks pretty enough, but sung on "Bring Me Home," the impact is as barren as the imagery. The main culprit are the spartan arrangements; besides the jarring, military marching beats of the title track and a small handful of other songs, this new album is so sonically skeletal, it's hard to remember what the songs actually sound like. Sade's catalog always tended toward doing more with less, but with Soldier of Love, it now feels like less, period.
This isn't to suggest the new album is a failure. Adu's voice still has a potent opiatic effect. On songs such as "In Another Time," the delicateness of her singing works well when balanced by a heavier walking rhythm, while the country twang of "Be That Easy" carries within it a haunting melancholy that Adu accents and teases out. It's just that the rest of Soldier of Love is too sparse to hold sustained attention. After waiting 10 years, there's a desire to be drenched in Sade, but what we get instead is closer to a light drizzle.