Solider of Love, Sade's first album since 2000's genteelly soulful Lover's Rock, finds her trademark Quiet Storm sound maturing and transforming into a scorched-earth Desert Storm of the heart. And wearing her purple heart on her sleeve, the first lady of neo-soul wanders shell-shocked and love-is-a-battlefield-weary through tracks that alternate between a detached, abstract hip-hop soul, ("Skin," "Baby Father," etc.), the occasional sleepwalking blues anachronism ("Be That Baby," "Skin," etc.), even a torch song ("In Another Time"). The effect is more chilling than chill — harrowing, even. "I've lost the use of my heart, but I'm still alive," she sings on the title track, which alternates between hard, lazy J Dilla snares and guitar flare-ups that even Johnny Greenwood would be proud of. By the time she's singing "still waiting for love to come. ...," she sounds less convinced each time she repeats it.
One has to wonder just what in the hell happened during the past 10 years; remember that her last hit was the almost maternal "By Your Side." But from the sound of this disc, whatever it was, it invites a certain Entertainment Weekly headline pithiness: "the Diamond Life has gathering dust," "the Smooth Operator has hung up on her" or just "Lover's Crock."
"The Moon + the Sky" also finds producer Mike Pela turning up the snares to a tastefully crunchy bootstomp (again, shades of Dilla!) while Sade sighs in her breathy way: "You'll always know the reason why, we could have had the moon and the sky." Things don't get much cheerier or less clunky. This different sound seems influenced by the heavy dub experiments of her guitar player Stuart Matthewman's dub project, Cottonbelly, than it is by her own jazzy legacy. This brings a certain uneasiness to the sound that borders on the maudlin at times. On "Bring Me Home," she's not a soldier but a casualty — maybe even a martyr. Over a fragile, picked-through guitar, Sade sings what might be her saddest line ever: "Put me on a plate with petals and a fire and set me out to sea." Damn! But as an artist who has spent her career chronicling relationships and their emotions in shinier terms, Soldier of Love is the last piece of the "Love with a capital L" puzzle in all its barbed-wire, funereal glory: Love won't so much tear us apart, it'll slowly cut us down to actual size.
Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.