Happy 15th Anniversary to Sade’s fifth album Lovers Rock, originally released in the UK November 13, 2000 and in the US November 14, 2000.
As I’ve written about recently, if ever there was a band whose musical output embodies the notion of “quality over quantity,” it’s unquestionably Sade. Throughout the past thirty-one years, the group has delivered just six studio albums, and half of these have arrived in the past twenty-three years. Evaluated together, Sade’s back catalog—while sparse relative to other artists who are prone to falling victim to the “haste makes waste” approach to recording—is one of the most consistently rewarding discographies you’ll ever lay your ears on.
The pinnacle of Sade’s sextet of long players is arguably 1992’s exquisitely crafted fourth Love Deluxe, which spawned classic tracks like “No Ordinary Love,” “Kiss of Life,” “Cherish the Day,” “I Couldn’t Love You More,” and “Like a Tattoo.” Following the critical and commercial acclaim of Love Deluxe, the band took an eight-year hiatus from recording together. During the extended interlude between albums, the Nigerian/British siren Sade Adu divorced her husband of six years, struck up a new romance, and gave birth to her daughter, while bandmates Stuart Matthewman (guitar/saxophone), Paul Denman (bass), and Andrew Hale (piano/keyboards) formed the band Sweetback, whose 1996 self-titled debut LP is an underappreciated gem.
Though Sade’s devoted fanbase waited restlessly for new material from the group, the time off was simply the manifestation of Adu’s natural, methodical approach to songwriting and her newfound maternal responsibilities, as she confided during a 2000 radio interview:
I need time, I need peace in my life. I need for nothing to be going on too dramatic. In order that I can put my whole self into making the album because when I’m writing, I have to cut myself off. I have to feel really ready and have that desire. ‘Cause from that desire, you can get the result to really want to do it and feel passionate about it. And also I had a little girl four years ago, and I’ve spent a lot of my time with her.
The group’s self-imposed diversions ultimately proved time well spent, as evidenced by the eleven masterful compositions included on their sublime fifth album, Lovers Rock.
An affectionate nod to the softer, more romantic sub-genre of reggae made famous by artists like Horace Andy, Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown, John Holt, and Gregory Isaacs, among others, the title of Lovers Rock seemed to augur the evolution of Sade’s sound. While not a full-scale sonic reinvention, the album’s adoption of acoustic guitar, dub percussion, and hip-hop flourishes signaled the group’s expansion into new realms of instrumentation and the next phase of the band’s maturation. Granted, the band’s signature chilled-out ambience is fully intact on Lovers Rock, but the album’s refined arrangements are less jazz-flavored and even more subdued than those found on their previous four albums. And the sparser production and softer tones heard throughout the song suite elevate Adu’s warm alto, delicate phrasing, and evocative lyrics to the forefront like never before.
Across most of Lovers Rock, as with the band’s preceding albums, Adu examines the often-thin lines between joy and sadness, euphoria and disillusionment, and strength and vulnerability, when it comes to matters of the heart. The album opens on a celebratory note, with the 1-2 heart flutter of lead single “By Your Side,” which stands as one of the most endearing anthems of unconditional love to emerge in the 21st century thus far, and the hip-hop tinged ballad “Flow.” The stripped-down, acoustic-guitar blessed “The Sweetest Gift” is Adu’s affectionate lullaby for her daughter, featuring some of the most tender lyrics she has penned to date:
Quietly while you were asleep
The moon and I were talking
I asked that she’d always keep you protected
She promised you her light
That you so gracefully carry
You bring your light and shine like morning
And then the wind pulls the clouds across the moon
Your light fills the darkest room
And I can see the miracle
That keeps us from falling
Now that I am the proud father of two incredible girls, I can unequivocally sympathize with Adu’s sentiments, as along with my amazing wife, my daughters are indeed the sweetest, most revelatory gifts I’ve ever known.
As is par for the course with any Sade album, the brighter moments are invariably juxtaposed with darker explorations of heartache and despair. The gorgeously produced, introspective “King of Sorrow” explores the depths of sadness and reinforces the importance of carrying on through one’s adversity. As Adu explains, the song speaks to those “bleakest moments, (when) you feel like you’re the only person in the world who carries the burden. The moment when you feel like everything’s on your shoulders. But everything continues and you have to face the world and continue as if everything’s fine. It’s a song for the people, I think, because we all feel that way.” The next track up is the meditative “Somebody Already Broke My Heart,” a somber rumination that finds a fragile Adu pleading with her new lover to “be careful and kind” with her.
Two socio-politically charged tracks expand beyond Sade’s well-traversed terrain of love and loss, to lend welcome thematic variety to the affair. On the dub-imbued “Slave Song,” Adu assumes the voice of the enslaved to deliver a clarion call of hope, perseverance and strong will in the face of the most dehumanizing of all human struggles. Adu has admitted that “‘Slave Song’ was a hard song for me to write, because I thought about Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song,’ and I thought, well, why write a song about slavery when Bob Marley has written a song that is that amazing. What more can you possibly say? Eventually I just decided that I know what the reason is for writing it. If you continue to dwell on the idea of slavery, then you don’t actually move on.” The equally moving “Immigrant” depicts the discrimination toward and marginalization of a black man in a nondescript foreign land, incorporating biblical references to Joseph of Nazareth and poignant lines such as “He didn’t know what it was to be black / ’til they gave him his change but didn’t want to touch his hand / To even the toughest among us / That would be too much.”
Lovers Rock deservedly won the Best Pop Vocal Album honor at the 2002 Grammy Awards and proved a bona fide commercial success, as did the 42-date North American Lovers Rock Tour that took place during the summer following the LP’s release. Nevertheless, the critical reception toward the album was incredulously mixed at best, as some reviewers admittedly lavished praise upon it, while other scribes suggested that the album offers little new within the broader context of Sade’s recorded canon to date. While surely entitled to their professional opinions, the critics of the less favorable—and in some cases, lazily written—reviews must have granted Lovers Rock only the most cursory of listens. For what may initially sound like subtle nuances relative to its precursors are gradually revealed to be more pronounced and intriguing variations with repeated, focused listens. Indeed, Lovers Rock is neither an “ephemeral” (Spin) album with no enduring rewards nor a derivative album that “sounds exactly like Sade, heavily influenced by Diamond Life with a bit of Love Deluxe thrown in” (Rolling Stone). To the contrary, Sade’s fifth effort is a fresh, adventurous step forward that represents an essential chapter in the band’s distinguished musical narrative.
My Favorite Song: “King of Sorrow”