Sade Soldier of Love is the sixth Sade album in 26 years. Its predecessor, Lovers Rock, came out in 2000 and in the intervening decade the group's members scattered to the four winds, running A&R consultancies, working on film soundtracks or managing their children's bands. Yet the call went up, and like Arthurian knights waking from their centuries' slumber, they converged in Wiltshire to do battle again with the forces of vulgarity, redeeming a fallen England with their sword of concision, their shield of impenetrable cool, and what, after all these years, remains their secret weapon: Sade Adu herself, least knowable of soul divas.
It's traditional for reviewers to observe that Sade never change, and it's true that they rarely stray far from their chosen form, the moody, studiedly sophisticated slow jam. The new album feels tied to 2010 by nothing more substantial than a vague sense that the time was right for another Sade record. It could just as easily have come out 10 years ago, though subtle nods to trip-hop and Lauryn Hill would seem to place it somewhere after 1998. It isn't that they don't change, then. They just do it very slowly. And, as it turns out, very surely.
The most outré elements on the new record come on its lead single and title track, Soldier of Love. Military snare rolls and palm-muted power chords underline a lyric of romantic desolation and determination. "I've been torn up inside," Adu sings stoically, "I've been left behind / Tall I ride / I have the will to survive." A lone trumpet and needling electric guitars complete the high-noon ambience, but the track never descends into kitsch. Adu's smokey charisma sees to that.
In a way it's a pity that she's never troubled herself with outside collaborations. It would be fascinating to hear her using that famous restraint to wrong-foot, for instance, one of Basement Jaxx's novelty fiestas. Still, the title track aside, Sade evidently aren't here to stretch themselves. The bulk of the album falls well within the band's comfort zone. It must be acknowledged that this territory has been rather gerrymandered over the years. There are hints of country, soul, Latin and jazz. Like their compatriots and fellow 1980s survivors Texas, Sade seem to view American music from such a distance that it all appears to come from more or less the same place. Morning Bird marries an insistent kick-drum pulse to the kind of weepy pseudoclassicism that Anthony and the Johnsons have made their own. Be That Easy is country rock via Norah Jones. Skin is Smooth Operator with its defences down.
In a few places, the band fall back on simple acoustic guitar arpeggios and hip-hop-lite drum loops, recalling the dreary Ikea pop of Dido. But Adu is too poised and conversational a singer, too suggestive a lyricist, to bore as Dido does. Even Babyfather's tale of love at the bus-stop transcends its humdrum details and banal hook to explore, with typically adult restraint, the ambiguities of single parenthood. What other band could invest this token of social breakdown with such cool grace? The soldiers of love are here, and the coffee tables of the world are safe, for another few years at least.