Born near Lagos, raised near London, the svelte and elegant bandleader Helen Folasade Adu, a/k/a Sade, spent MTV’s first wave of raunchy sexhibitionism quietly cultivating her feminine mystique while most fame-chasing songstresses were loudly wiggling theirs. Not that her sophisti-pop proved any less commercial. For all her relative refinement, the quiet-storm royal reigns as Godmother of Neo-Soul, now a 51-year-old soberly surveying her vast yet sparse career: 50 million records sold between just six studio albums in 30 years, and you’ve heard moments from them all—in tapas parlors, in windchime shops, in all the sacred spaces that society has reserved for Her, the ageless face and disembodied breath of a band staffed by funkless Brits who might have wound up covering Phil Collins if they hadn’t caught her on precisely the right beat. Good thing they did. In her service, they are magical. So is she.
Oh, but Sade’s magic hinges on emotional sleight-of-hand, as she carefully tucks her mortal personality behind a stylish smokescreen. I’ve tried not to be mystified, but it’s hard. The lady is a professional enigma—sultry and secretive, as omni-cultural as the president and equally impossible to really know, which of course just makes her easier to crush on. On Soldier of Love (her first record in 10 years), she slips through cool, ambient fog, riding harmonies as hollow as a silencer as she coos utterances too nuanced and disconnected to decode.
What a spy. She’s been the cryptic kind since the throbbing double agent loungecore of her mid-’80s breakout hit “Smooth Operator” revealed a dime novelist’s penchant for intrigue. We learn a little about him, this Mr. Operator, but what, really, do we know about her? For a muse whose feathery sighs signify as sensual, Sade is more ethereal than earthly, more like the Greek muse Erato than the geek’s muse Erykah. We know she has suffered much heartbreak—always with the heartbreak. And yet again here she merely alludes to it, conjuring the same vague weather metaphors that Cormac McCarthy used to imply whatever cataclysm prefaces The Road.
With Soldier of Love, start with the ambiguous Mayan ruins on the cover—ominously 2012—or the esoteric free verse she drags across glittering riffs slow-jamming at Quaaludes speed. Then, ponder this couplet, exhaled into trickling piano on “Morning Bird”: “You are the blood of me/The harvest of my dreams.” I find that mixed metaphor as out of place as the ocean waves crashing on the space-themed “The Moon and the Sky”—unless it’s a tides thing. Might as well be. For all I care, Sade could waste a whole record whispering tidal-pattern incantations in Liv Tyler’s Elvish, and it would all remain so sexy, so cold. On “Long Hard Road,” she quivers about the length of long, hard roads while maracas rustle like tumbleweeds in agreement. On “The Safest Place,” she brings her beau to “the safest hiding place”: “my heart.” (Absolutely true.) “Inside is a field,” she further describes. “And trees/And a lake.” You worry she might slip up and quote Goodnight Moon, which would be just as personable.
Oh, well. Some spells can swamp you even when you see them coming—consider Sade’s grandma, a Yoruba herbalist who made the young singer sit on newspaper to keep the couch’s bad juju from rubbing off on her ass. Two generations later, Sade’s aesthetic sorcery defies rational interpretation. A dry-your-eyes soother like “In Another Time” (“Soon, he’ll mean nothing to you”), built from an “Unchained Melody” arpeggio, should sound as dull as the elevator it rode up on, but doesn’t. It sounds rarefied. “You’ll always know the reason why this song will stay on your mind,” she winks on “Moon,” as her Anglo-soul lilt glides through lonesome reverb, offering intimacy and distance in the same icy, nurturing breath.
Besides, you might not want that spell to break. So confirms “Baby Father,” a mundane marriage of metronome and futzing guitar, over which Sade tells her daughter the story of how Mom and Dad’s meeting bloomed into “the flower that is you.” It’s sweet, it’s banal. “Skin,” conversely, is highly relatable yet obliquely mesmerizing: “Wash you off my skin/I’m going to peel you away” she sighs to an ex, stretching the “peel” like a demonstration of her cleansing pain.
And then she dies, or nearly does, on some war-blistered battlefield the title track incites us to imagine. “I’ve lost the use of my heart/But I’m still alive,” she crows, like a loveless cyborg crawling up some Afghan hill on a mission to out-Enya the Taliban. Amid heavy bass, a synthesizer churns out machine-gun blasts. What fun. This is easy-listening divahood. It’s also exactly the metaphor-make-believe the Godmother was born for, and apparently unthawed from carbonite to bring anew. She’ll survive. If I see her in the final century, I will hardly be surprised.