"She is pop music's Greta Garbo," says John Aizlewood, the music critic with London's Evening Standard. "She's an enigma." One glance at the cover of Sade's new album, Soldier of Love, released February 8, underlines his point. Sade is pictured with her back to the camera, her face turned away. Her press agent confirmed she will endure a solitary interview to support the release of the new CD. Promotional overkill clearly isn't Sade's style; Simon Cowell would definitely not approve.
Yet despite, or perhaps because of, her obvious diffidence, the return of the Nigerian-born pop chanteuse after 10 years is major news. When her single Soldier of Love was released last week, The New York Times gushed: "Sade's voice is as pure and mysterious as ever." In an age of unchecked self-expression and unbridled exhibitionism, Sade's poise and restraint have drawn listeners closer and turned her into a star.
Her last studio album, 2000's Lovers Rock, which featured the affecting No Woman No Cry retool By Your Side, went to No 3 in the US Billboard chart. It was an impressive feat given the eight-year gap between that CD and her previous release, 1992's Love Deluxe. One reason for her enduring success is that her songs from the mid-1980s are still heard on American smooth-jazz and pop radio stations (and have helped guide R&B and neo-soul stars back to the artists that influenced her, such as Donny Hathaway and Billie Holiday).
"But Sade is successful because no one does anything quite like she does," Aizlewood says. "No one is 'the new Sade'. She is utterly unique." As well as resisting the temptation to flood the market with her music, Sade (real name Helen Folasade Adu) declined to draft in big names to help her scale the charts. For her new album, which she produced and co-wrote, she teamed up with her long-term collaborators Andrew Hale, Stuart Matthewman and Paul Spencer Denman, with whom she has worked since 1984. She has even used the same photographer, Sophie Muller.
The album features the soft and plush jazz grooves of her biggest hits, Smooth Operator and Sweetest Taboo, and little else, but her singing has become richer with age. Her voice used to float above her material, but now it sits in the centre of it, sounding emotionally crushed but hopeful. It's a tone The New York Times described as her "veil of heartbreak". New album tracks such as The Safest Place, Bring Me Home and In Another Time are concerned with solace rather than romance, heartbreak instead of devotion. But given her propensity for privacy, it's hard to know what the source of Sade's great pain might be.
"I married. I had a terrible relationship. I got divorced," is all she would say about her 1989 marriage to the Spanish filmmaker Carlos Scola, with whom she had a daughter. When the couple split up, Sade left Madrid and returned to her London home. Soon after, The Daily Mail intended to publish a story alleging she was a drug addict, but when her lawyer threatened legal action and offered to provide blood tests to back Sade's denials, the newspaper backed down. Since then, Sade has admitted that, had she known she would have to endure spiteful press articles, she would have never entered the music business in the first place.
So can Sade, now 50 and with an OBE (the British Labour government awarded her the honour in 2002), bounce back again? People may have to be reminded that she still exists, but she is managed by Roger Davies, the Australian powerhouse who helmed Tina Turner's return to global stardom, so it would be premature to rule out another barnstorming comeback. "This has been Sade's longest time away," Aizlewood says. "But there is a lot to work with here. It's a terrific album. Her quality will win through."