Happy 30th Anniversary to Sade’s sophomore album Promise, originally released in the UK November 4, 1985 and in the US November 15, 1985.
While most of us naturally think of the divine Nigerian-born, UK-raised Ms. Helen Folasade Adu when we see or hear the name “Sade,” what some may not realize is that it’s also the moniker of the band that Adu fronts. Formed in London in 1982 as an offshoot of Latin soul group Pride, the group was originally comprised of Adu, Stuart Matthewman (guitar/saxophone), Paul Denman (bass), and Paul Anthony Cook (drums), with Andrew Hale (piano/keyboards) joining in 1983 and Cook leaving in 1984. The trio of Matthewman, Denman and Hale would later form side-project band Sweetback in 1994, releasing two solid LPs in the ten years that followed.
Embracing a refined, elegantly crafted jazz, funk and soul flavored brand of pop music, Sade first made waves in the early ‘80s by playing local gigs across London’s club scene, developing a loyal following relatively quickly as a result. The band’s live debut on the other side of the Atlantic took place at New York City’s famed Danceteria nightclub in May 1983, where, as a matter of fact, Adu had briefly bartended (LL Cool J and members of the Beastie Boys also worked there for a time). Just a few months before Sade’s performance, the venue hosted the first-ever show by a virtually unknown, 24 year-old upstart named Madonna Ciccone.
Not surprisingly, the band’s early performances propelled by their lush orchestrations and Adu’s coolly seductive alto attracted label interest in short order. Adu – minus the band – ultimately signed with Epic Records in the UK and short-lived Epic sister label Portrait Records in the US. Recognizing that she had the bargaining scales tipped in her favor, Adu swiftly mandated that the labels sign her bandmates as a package deal. Indeed, from the earliest days of her burgeoning career, Adu proved more adept than most artists in her business dealings. The prime example of her shrewdness was her negotiation of a smaller upfront advance as part of her recording contract. In exchange, Adu was guaranteed a larger than normal share of future record sales (allegedly 15%), a wise move that has proven financially lucrative for her over the course of her storied career.
In July of 1984, Sade formally unveiled their sophisticated sound with the UK release of their debut album Diamond Life, with a US release following seven months later in February of 1985. Although the group had released two singles (“Your Love is King” and “When Am I Going to Make a Living”) that made modest ripples within the European charts prior to the album’s release, it was the release of third single “Smooth Operator” that earned the quartet substantially broader worldwide attention. On the strength of the chart-climbing single, Diamond Life proceeded to net millions in sales worldwide, with the lion’s share concentrated in the US. Ironically, as the story goes, Adu’s original demo version of “Smooth Operator” was initially rejected by all labels she sent it to. Go figure.
A brief eight months or so following the US release of Diamond Life, the band unveiled their highly-anticipated follow-up effort, Promise. The album’s title was inspired by a letter that Adu received from her father, in which he wrote about the “promise of hope,” a reference to a source of strength he found during his battle with cancer. Promise sounds like the natural extension of Diamond Life’s soul-jazz-pop textures and treads similar thematic territory of love and loss, though it possesses a noticeably more subdued ambience, downtempo pace, and melancholic tone overall.
Album opener “Is It a Crime” is a deceptively funky, yet sobering portrait of a spurned lover declaring her persistent love for the man who has moved on to another. In a similar vein, the solemn “You’re Not the Man” finds Adu lamenting a dubious love plagued by false promises and dashed hopes. One of the album’s sparsest tracks, the acoustic-tinged “War of the Hearts” brings Adu’s velvet-soft vocals to the forefront, as she yearns for reconciliation amid the emotional wounds she and her lover have inflicted upon each other. While all three compositions showcase Adu’s effortlessly enchanting voice as the album’s centerpiece, Hale’s sharp piano playing is an undeniable highlight too, as also evidenced on the instrumental “Punch Drunk.”
The entire album isn’t a maudlin affair, mind you. Though a few different interpretations of the song’s meaning have been floated, at its core, rhythmic lead single “The Sweetest Taboo” is a breezy ode to the “quiet storm” of passionate, forbidden love. The gentle groove of follow-up single “Never as Good as the First Time” celebrates the novelty of new experience, romantic or otherwise. In an interview with the New York Times, Adu clarifies that the song “isn’t really about love, but about growing up. When I say that it’s never as good as the first time, I’m talking about the enjoyment of anything when you first discover it. It can be as insignificant as the thrill of going to a nightclub for the first time. Those particular feelings can never be repeated.” And if the accompanying video is any indication, Adu considers horseback riding across wide-open plains among life’s many thrills.
Across a stirring trio of songs, Adu demonstrates her keen empathy and compassion for the female experience by paying tribute to three women’s unique life narratives. On “Jezebel,” she refuses to cast judgement upon a lady of the night who exerts control through her beauty and seductive charms. The poignant “Tar Baby” examines a young woman’s unwanted pregnancy, with the baby ultimately proving to be a gift that represents “the good from the grief.” And the album’s final song, “Maureen,” is Adu’s heartfelt remembrance of the many adventures she shared with her childhood friend who died at an early age.
Remarkably, and regrettably, the critical reception toward Promise proved a mixed bag. Steven Holden of the New York Times called the album an “an impressive leap forward” from Diamond Life, while People magazine described it as “wonderful with slight reservations.” However, other critics allowed their journalistic myopia to get the better of them, unfairly harping on what they perceived to be Adu’s stoicism and lack of vocal range. In his less-than-glowing review of the album for Rolling Stone, the much-lauded scribe Anthony DeCurtis lamented what he perceived as Adu’s “stylized detachment” and contended that “As the singer and her deft three-piece combo move with relentless composure through these medium-tempo tales of the diamond life revisited, the careful elegance of the production and instrumental settings seems little more than a strategy to conceal the limitations of Sade’s vocal range and skills as a song stylist.” Similar sentiments were echoed by The Chicago Tribune’s Lynn Van Matre in her review of Sade’s December 1985 concert at the windy city’s Auditorium Theatre, in which she labeled Adu’s style as “far more style than substance” and “devoid of passion and commitment.”
With all due respect to their professional opinions, and perhaps with the benefit of thirty years of retrospect regarding Sade’s career, DeCurtis and Van Matre’s curmudgeonly criticisms seem more than a little misguided. Indeed, Sade’s measured, soothing tones are what differentiates her from the crop of indulgently overwrought and superficially emotive singers who never miss the chance to belt one out at the top of their lungs. On Promise – and all of the band’s albums, for that matter – Adu crafts soul-stirring, evocative mood music, and she need not over-sing or over-sentimentalize to pull off the feat. In more straightforward terms, Promise – and Sade’s music in general – proves powerful without overpowering.
And Promise proved commercially potent as well, ascending to the #1 spot on both the UK and US album charts, and has been certified 4x platinum in the states. At the 1986 Grammy Awards, with two successful LPs already under their belt, Sade won the Best New Artist honor, beating out more traditional pop newcomers A-Ha, Katrina and the Waves, and Julian Lennon, and soul crooner Freddie Jackson.
Sade have since become one of the most passionately beloved acts in the world, despite a meticulously methodical recording pace that has delivered just six studio LPs in 31 years, and just three in the past 23 years. No matter though, as the band’s musical repertoire exemplifies the virtues of quality trumping quantity, a notion that quite a few overly productive artists could learn a thing or two from. Much has been made in the media about Adu’s traditionally reclusive, press-shunning lifestyle. But ultimately, who cares if she opts to avoid the spotlight and preserve her artistic allure, when she and her band of brothers have blessed the world with such consistently inspired music like the exquisitely enchanting Promise.
My Favorite Song: “Never as Good as the First Time”