Tuesday 5 August 2014

SADE: Promise

(#324; 16 November 1985, 2 weeks)

Track listing:  Is It A Crime/The Sweetest Taboo/War Of The Hearts/You're Not The Man/Jezebel/Mr. Wrong/Punch Drunk/Never As Good As The First Time/Fear/Tar Baby/Maureen

"If art is understood as a form of discipline of the feelings and a programming of sensations, then the feeling (or sensation) given off by a Rauschenberg painting might be like that of a song by the Supremes.  The brio and elegance of Budd Boetticher's The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond or the singing style of Dionne Warwick can be appreciated as a complex and pleasurable event.  They are experienced without condescension."  Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation, "On Culture and The New Sensibility" (1965)

The year 1985 is now coming to a close; this is the last non-compilation album to top the chart, in a neat bookending with the first, Alf by Alison Moyet.  (Amazingly, this blog will not reach another non-compilation/best of album of one sort or another for a good half year, due to, in part, the sadly immense popularity of Brothers In Arms.)  That Promise should be caught up in the high tide of such things is lamentable, but looked at another way, Dire Straits is long gone and Sade, as a band, is still here. 

This is fairly impressive considering how Sade started out; as a few musicians in the band Pride who were asked to form their own band to support Pride, with Sade Adu (a Pride backing singer, only taken on at first for her looks as much as her voice), Stuart Matthewman, Andrew Hale and Paul S Denman as the band.  They soon outshone Pride, got a record deal in 1983, recorded Diamond Life and unwittingly found themselves famous, their music a soundtrack to young upwardly mobile professionals, thrusting Thatcherites who took the band’s cool and glamour as a sign of Tory sophistication.  Music for wine bar flirtation and dealing; music to make you feel more suave and assured.  (This despite the obvious disdain Adu* feels for the “Smooth Operator.”)  Sade was cool, and just as popular, if not more so, in the US than at home.  The sudden rush of fame and fortune was welcome, to be sure, but Promise is an album that is not so upbeat and bright; an album that is about what lies underneath glamor, and what is actually worth something.

Promise starts, in a way, with the peak moment:  "Is It A Crime."  The song begins with her admitting that her ex is "full of lies" but she still misses him;  he's got a new girl and she can imagine them:  "he tastes her kiss" and she is repulsed,  leaps up to say "SHE TAKES - SURELY SHE DOESN'T KNOW HOWWW."  The narrator's love is so big - "taller than the Empire State" that it dwarfs whatever meagre love the other woman could possibly offer.  Her love is wide, world-striding.  "It dives, it jumps, ripples like the deepest ocean," she proclaims, then leaps again: "SURELY YOU WANT ME BAAAACCCK."  Already those expecting this to be easy listening are thrown off. "It dives, IT JUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMPPPPS."  Then the quiet lament - "Is it a crime?  Is it a crime that I still want you and I want you to want me too?"  She turns away; then "it DIVES -JUUUMPss...ripples like the deepest oceaaaan - CAN'TGIVEYOUMORETHANTHAT...surely you want it back?" She is losing energy, calling out like a dying battery, unable to give up.  "Telllll meeee...is it a CRIIIIIIIIIIIMMMMME." she ends, before losing her powers of influence altogether.  He's gone, she knows it's a surprise - to herself and him - that she misses him, but she does.  Her love is too great, it is pulling her, down and up, exhausting her.

Anyone who listens to this and thinks it's somehow "cool" is missing the point.  Adu is a passionate singer, but it's not in the same fashion as Aretha Franklin or even Anita Baker (whose first album The Songstress is by now out and about, two years old in fact, though few know about her in the UK as of yet).  Adu mentions Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers as influences, and their openness and simplicity is what Sade is going for, along with a kind of, yes, sophistication that all girls who run off to dance clubs - as Adu did as a teenager bored in Essex - would want to be part of, if not become.  Adu's love of music was her saving grace, a world where she,  half-Nigerian, half-English, could fit in.  How well, though?  I will get to that tough question in a short while.      

"The Sweetest Taboo" is breathy, sensuous, tickled, again full of passion that may just be "too good for me" - a joy that is fierce and all the more intense because it - whatever it is - is held back.  The whole song soars and hides, happy but scared of being found out, exposed; the pleasure is half in the secret, whatever you guess the secret is.  That it mentions the "quiet storm" is something of a nod to the kind of radio show that introduced Sade to North American audiences, the kind that her influences (and Smokey Robinson, too) made possible in the first place.  This could even be a flip side to the previous song, save that this taboo was what she first had with him - "bringing out the best in me."  Maybe he's decided he is too good for her?  Who knows.

"War Of The Hearts" is the next logical step in this break-up album - like Bush's "Running Up That Hill" there are two at war here, and the narrator is longing to put an end to their strife.  There is a lot of ammunition but nothing do to with it; "loaded don't know where to point this thing" Adu sings, aware that if she uses her weapon, it may just backfire on her.  Ever cautious, she wants it to end, this war; "this masquerade" as she calls it (a shout-out to previous TPL subject George Benson?) - to heal wounds and walk off the field before things get too heavy.  All this to a beat that sounds like a tropical beat that is part Brazil and part "Heart of Glass." 

After all, "You're Not The Man."  If he was the same man, then that would indeed be a betrayal.  But he isn't.  This song starts out as a lament - no, he's not the one who would "bleed" for you, the one who all but gave you life (and her sadness here is almost that of someone bereaved).  It starts out with a modest solo by Matthewman, and "You're not the man who couldn't breathe, couldn't sleep without me..." The song brightens a bit as the percussion comes in, but then leaves again; "you're not the man who threw me a lifeline" she remembers; the one she was "so proud" to call hers.  She is so quiet, it's almost like she's singing to herself.  Then the percussion comes back, piano, and she reveals, after another more resigned solo from Matthewman...."I'm not the little girl I used to BEEE" she sings, asking the listener and indeed the man she is singing to.  He would "always ALWAYS always be..." "made me believe in...meee."  "Said he'd always always be here..." The song dissolves like soap, disappears, never breaks into the triumph of I'm-over-you-ness.  She's not there yet.  And so she still misses him, even if she's not the same, but she sounds as if she is on her way to that state of not obsessing over him.  But, again, not yet.  (It's worth noting here that Whitney Houston's first album is out by now, and that Sade may not have her pure sunshine brilliance but again, Sade's still here and tragically, Houston isn't.  Adu had her relationship troubles but was never one to stay with someone who didn't truly value her and give her respect, something that is detectable in Promise and elsewhere.)       

It may be that this is yet another song about the Other Woman - that's what "Jezebel" is, the bad woman.  And this song is more of a lamenting praise - she's a beautiful but poor woman, what is she to do?  She knows what she's got, wants what others have and has no interest in living life any other way.  "Try show her a better WWWWWAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYY" Adu sings, but the woman in question is deaf to pleas or reason.  She is a Thatcherite through and through, saying she's "gonna get what's mine" because she's going to "reach for the top."  This is a realistic song, downbeat, tough as the woman in question is stubborn.

And in parallel, here comes "Mr. Wrong" - a faster song, as this man is nothing but bad news.  Adu sings of and to the woman who is struggling with her feelings for this man, encouraging her to leave.  "You can be strong girl, don't need him now/RUN AWAY!"  The funk here (Adu scats a lot) is that of the woman who knows, who's been there.  Just get up and go, don't think, act.  This sure ain't Phil Collins, who would no doubt do a similar song and then whine on about how hard and difficult this act of leaving is...

Andrew Hale's "Punch Drunk" is a mid-tempo showcase for the band and sounds just as woozy and tired and think-I've-gotta-take-a-break as the title implies.  Perhaps a fight has happened, or maybe this is just an allusion to drinking?  Or perhaps a bit of both.  In any case, it's lovely and shows that Sade is a band, not just the woman herself.

"Never As Good As The First Time" is practically a philosophical treatise on diminishing returns, done in the most "1985" style on the album (it sounds much like a very relaxed Level 42).  This subject is also mentioned in the feast of a book that is Powell's Julie & Julia:

"And the source of your tragic ennui is?"

"Well, it all starts over now, doesn't it?  Best-case scenario, we IM and IM and IM, and I totally obsess for six months or however long it is until he comes back to New York again, and the cycle continues.  Only now I know what the sex is like.  And it's not that great.  I mean, it's great but how could it possibly compete with what we'd been writing to each other?  With the imagining of it?  It can't.  Nothing ever does, does it?" ("The Law of Diminishing Returns" pp. 142-3)

This song could also be a sly way of letting the listener know that yeah, this ain't Diamond Life, and yes, sorry about that but then not really all that sorry, in the end.  Right away Sade is pushing forward, setting their own pace, giving the public (kind of ) what it wants.

"Fear" is a return to the "not mellow" vibes of Promise (itself a provocative word, just as Adu's sidelong look on the cover is expectant and reserved).  There are strings here, and bilingual lyrics of English and Spanish - a woman waits for her matador, her whole life is vivid red or blue, life or death; she has to deal with the fear of that death which could happen at any time, that fear she "can't hide anymore" - the fear breaks out in the middle to take over the song, with a tortured solo from Matthewman.  The drums build to it like her heart beating, then become a bolero march, sweeping her along helplessly.  Nothing is overplayed here, and the song ends with that color inside her, though she admits it to him, that fear, and once again things are open-ended, there is no way of knowing what happens besides this declaration.

Much happier is "Tar Baby" - well, as happy as this mostly subdued album gets.  Now, this is a contentious term, to be sure, but here the baby is real - seen as a problem at first, but then as a happy result of difficulties.  "Grandma came to see somethin' she could not believe"-  it is an exaggeration for me to think of this as Adu's own grandmother, seeing her English daughter's own daughter who is part African?  I'm not sure.  But the line "tar baby told the secret she conceived" seems to point to it, and the problem of a mixed-race baby in early 60s UK - which is what Adu was, as she and her mother went to England when Adu was just four, her parents divorced - leads me to consider how much things have or have not changed in the UK since the early 60s.  I'm sure they've changed a lot, and Adu herself has had some impact as you'd expect, but what would happen if someone like her came along now?  For that matter, look at her own story and you'll see her now happy and living in the country with a good relationship and family and band; on the other, if she's seen as a recluse who only occasionally releases albums (last one was over four years ago now) she isn't held in the same high regard as Kate Bush.  Now, I'm not going to compare these two women, but isn't it odd how Sade is still more popular and loved in the US than she is in the UK?

"Maureen" is an uptempo ending, but how uptempo can a song about someone who is dead be?  Maureen is her teenage accomplice, her fast friend, the one who knew her well before she was at all famous; the one who remembers Adu's mother telling them not to stay out too late at those Essex clubs.  But she is gone, and Adu can't introduce her to her new friends - and the death is still with her, something she "can't explain" - but the song is happy nevertheless, as if Maureen was there anyhow, in some way.  And as long as Adu remembers her, she is...

As I said before, Sade is more popular in the US than the UK; proof of this is that Promise is her only #1 album in the UK, whereas 2010's Soldier of Love got to the top in the US but not in the UK**: there are reasons for this, I guess, including the fact that Sade's sound hasn't changed to suit the playlists of stations in the UK...that the jazz they play isn't the same, exactly, as that on Jazz FM; it's almost as if Sade don't really belong anywhere, are singular, and will not conform or cut themselves to fit any given format.  Her influence and love are more felt in the US, from Maxwell to Erykah Badu, P. Diddy to Kanye West - it could well be that Sade is just too damn cool for the UK, too determined to do things her way, not "feminine" enough in some way to be considered "one of the girls" in a "here come the girls" sense.  No.  Helen Folasade Adu isn't a part of anything definably English; she rises above pesky things like nationality. She was born outside, in the Commonwealth, and even though she lives in England she realizes it's not a place that will ever really embrace her - accept her, say the way Andy Murray crying after he lost Wimbledon was embraced by the English public, for instance.

But it's no matter; enough people in the UK love her without needing to be "up close and personal" with her via tv interviews and such, because the music is enough, more than enough.  Sade Adu is seen as a sophisticate, but really she's very simple and tough and country; hers is solid music you can lean on, in any state.  Others will appear on Then Play Long who will also be loved in the US just as much, if not more, than the UK - one of whom is still a baby in 1985 - and in a way she is an example to them, as to how you can endure and prevail and do what you want, once you have the chance to do so.  Sade only make music now when the time is right; when the songs are there.  Others may wear themselves out by trying too hard, but Sade - led as always by Adu - are pacing themselves, like a mountaineer or dancer.  And that's why they have lasted.

Next up:  um, what year is this again?     

*Adu is a country girl at heart and while she did have aspirations to being a fashion designer,  she loved music more; I suspect this album is a break-up one, and I’m guessing it is about the fashion-mad (as he was then) writer for The Face Robert Elms.

**It was also top in Canada and France, and in case you're wondering, the albums that sold more in the UK that week were by Alicia Keys, Andre Rieu and Paolo Nutini; TPL will be getting to two of these in good time.