When you get right down to it, there's not much difference between hair-metal sociopath Axl Rose and quiet-storm songstress Sade Adu. Seriously. Work with me here: Both are intensely, eerily reclusive, inspiring more rumor than fact. Both go long, quiet stretches, decades even, without releasing product.
And when they do unveil something new — his Chinese Democracy; her Soldier of Love, which hit stores last week — it's not "new" at all. Still, we love Axl and Sade for their stasis, for their reassuring sameness. If they released a new album every few years, maybe we'd get bored. Instead, we stay intrigued.
The British Nigerian singer, now 51, hasn't shown her face since 2000's Lovers Rock. But per her intense privacy, she's not showing much of it now, either. The cover of Soldier of Love is of Sade gazing out on ruins, her flawless back exposed to the camera. It reminds me of that creepy Guinness Book of World Records shot of the woman with the smallest waist. Remember her? She was turned away, too, hiding herself from a gawking public.
Inside the liner notes to Soldier of Love, we finally see a shadowy picture of Sade's exotic, expressionless face. (For paying customers only, apparently.) She's still beautiful, still chilling and aloof. But what's going on inside that ageless head? The guessing game continues. Over the course of six albums (in 26 years), her undulating rhythms, always soulful, exotic, seductive, have centered on love and its mysteries. But now it sounds like that love could be in jeopardy.
On album opener The Moon and the Sky, Sade, in her crystalline calming way, sings, "You lay me down and left me for the lions." On the next song, the title track, she claims, "I've lost the use of my heart, but I'm still alive." Hmmm … Sade has always been a storyteller. But you wonder: Did a personal crisis force her out of creative seclusion?
The singer-songwriter doesn't make false moves, and she expects the same of her tight band (which is also named Sade, but all that gets confusing). Guitarist-saxophonist Stuart Matthewman gently merges Latin and African influence, an exotic melange perfect for the singer's intriguing melting-pot vocal. Andrew Hale's keyboard is rarely obtrusive, usually somnambulant, although it offers refreshing old-soul heat to the rippling warmth of Be That Easy.
Sade's voice, much like Jack Johnson's, exists in an ethereal range between high and low. No flights of octave-spanning derring-do for this one. Instead, she uses subtle inflection and propulsive sway to great effect, and there's remarkable honesty, sensuality and pain in her vocal. Sade has helped a lot of people hook up since she debuted in 1984 with the hit Smooth Operator. But you now get the feeling she's helped more than a few people break up, as well.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.