Sade’s Stronger Than Pride Revisited
It’s very easy to hate Sade, and it has been so ever since the group emerged from London’s jazz-club scene in the early 1980s. Part of it is socio-cultural: although Sade Adu herself is hardly a poster child of privilege, given her position as a Nigerian immigrant whose biography was profoundly shaped by her parents’ divorce, it is nonetheless undeniable that her group’s soft, anodyne grooves soundtracked many a yuppie party in the 1980s. “Aural wallpaper,” as Robert Christgau dismissed it. Worse still are the band’s appreciators, most of whom make the error of mistaking the part for the whole and focus their adoration entirely on Adu herself, often in creepily sexual and objectifying terms. This puff piece on AskMen.com is an exemplar of the kind of coverage the band receives: Stuart Matthewman, Andrew Hale and Paul Denman are almost entirely sidelined, while Adu’s voice is described as “sensual” and expressing a “raw sexuality”.
In case you weren’t entirely convinced that such descriptors are voyeuristic and a little exploitative, readers of the site can vote on which of Adu’s features make her most desirable: seventy per cent of readers go for her face, and fourteen per cent for her body, while only nine per cent find her intelligence to be her most salient feature. (Three per cent voted for her “wild side”, which is particularly laughable given the remarkable poise of her public persona and her famously guarded privacy—if indeed Adu has a wild side, none of the readers of AskMen.com would ever have been privy to it.)
Unthreatening lounge-jazz made by an exotic, sexy chanteuse and her white male sidekicks for the consumption of yuppies and urban sophisticates—what could be more antithetical to serious music? What could be less worthy of discussion? Yet Sade have persisted over decades of music industry turmoil, showing a longevity that cannot be written off as merely the by-product of a good marketing campaign and rusted-on baby boomer listeners looking for a new salve to ease the pain of their third divorce. For many listeners, the group’s virtues are best displayed on their multi-million selling 1984 debut, Diamond Life, which spawned the group’s best known work (‘Smooth Operator’, ‘Hang on to Your Love’, ‘Your Love is King’). But for all that Diamond Life typifies what the average listener might think Sade is about, it’s something of an anomaly in their catalogue: more uptempo and engaging than later work, seeking the approbation of its audience through the pyrotechnics of Stuart Matthewman’s flamboyant saxophone solos, and embedded within the cultural milieu of the London jazz scene. If you’re after a representative Sade album, you’re better off with their third, 1988’s Stronger Than Pride.
I would have encountered Stronger Than Pride very close to the time of its release, when I was around four or five years old; some of my earliest musical memories are of it. My parents were, and remain, avid fans of Sade, but they couldn’t be further from the stereotype of Sade’s core audience: they were a pair of barely-reconstructed hippies living in the bush just outside a tiny town in north coast New South Wales, Australia. That town, Dorrigo, seems in retrospect to be where the last vestiges of Haight-Ashbury hippiedom left at the fag end of the greed-is-good decade went to die. Believe it or not, many of my childhood friends were kids growing up in bona fide communes complete with the kinds of adult romantic entanglements gently satirised in Lukas Moodysson’s Together. My parents’ milieu at the time was one of bearded men who knew how to build their own sheds from recycled timber and women who kept bottles of Bach flower remedies in the cupboard for medical emergencies. And when these people got together to drink wine, puff on joints and talk about the bucolic lives they were building for themselves and their children, the soundtrack was more often than not Sade.
It sounds incongruous, and it may have only happened by accident. My parents were early adopters of the CD player, and rather than keeping a turntable and their old Pink Floyd and Neil Young LPs, they jettisoned their past musical tastes almost entirely and cleaved to the kind of albums that suited the crystalline clarity of the format: the plasticky synth-pop of Level 42, the Fairlight synthesis of John Farnham’s Whispering Jack, Simply Red’s A New Flame. Brash stuff, all of it—some might even say gauche—designed for immediacy and bereft of mystery. (Before you sneer at my parents, remember that this was before the internet made everyone a music archivist, and that we lived over an hour’s drive away from the nearest CD store, which would have had a miserable range in any case—it was tough being in the technological vanguard in Dorrigo circa 1989.) Sade’s albums may have slotted into my parents’ CD collection by virtue of being mega-selling discs of adult contemporary pop, but they stood out from their peers for their lightness of touch and subtlety.
That deliberate unobtrusiveness—which Pitchfork’s Jess Harvell has wonderfully captured in a phrase juste as “the kind of competency that’s always just a few steps from blandness”—is nowhere more marked than on Stronger Than Pride. The album’s production sounds fabulously expensive, thanks in part to the fact that it was recorded at Compass Point, but also strangely muted. Where both of Sade’s previous albums open with Matthewman’s extravagant saxophone licks, Stronger Than Pride opens with a single grace note of Adu’s voice before launching into a fully-formed verse of ‘Love is Stronger Than Pride’, which gives it the quality of beginning in media res.
Nothing is there to seduce us into Sade’s quiet storm; if you’re not already primed for ultra-smooth cool jazz, you can fuck off. That may seem like an overly aggressive way to put it, but Stronger Than Pride is, in its own weird way, quite aggressive in its commitment to a kind of radical understatement. Where another singer would use Matthewman, Hale, and Denman’s exquisitely restrained backdrop as a canvas on which to splash colourful vocal histrionics, Adu paints grey on grey: even when she’s delivering a stern warning such as “never dare to doubt me” (on ‘Haunt Me’), her poise is glacially composed. Even when this compact between singer and band is broken, Adu is not the party at fault. ‘Turn My Back on You’ is backed by a cod–hip hop beat, a crunchy, deliberately awkward groove that sounds like a band searching vainly for the faux-naïf charm that propelled ‘Genius of Love’ up the charts seven years earlier. You’d never know from Adu’s singing, which thankfully sounds completely unmoored from its backdrop.
Aloofness is not an emotion that listeners readily sympathise with. We’re too accustomed to seeing it as an indication that a singer is not really ‘there’; we understand through a semiotic shorthand that passion = dedication = proficiency. (Think of all those warbling wannabe starlets on The Voice whose sole aim is to out-emote Adele.) If Stronger Than Pride has anything to teach the current moment in pop music, it’s that aloofness and irony, properly harnessed, can be thoroughly captivating. Take the album’s title, which is a perfect example of ironic process theory: it informs us that something (in this case it’s love, as listeners discover within moments of playing the album) is stronger than pride, but through a linguistic sleight of hand, the only words we have recourse to are “strength” and “pride”. (The cover photo of Adu on a beach, all steely mid-distance gaze and aristocratic hauteur, certainly helps give the impression that pride is the album’s true subject, no matter what the title says.)
The subject matter of the song ‘Love Is Stronger Than Pride’ is an embarrassing romantic rout: Adu sings, “I can’t hate you / Although I have tried”; her love for the song’s subject has made her craven. But the delivery is another matter entirely: icy and reserved, it allows her to fully express the humiliation that sees her adore this man against her will. It holds true throughout the entire album: scratch an emotion presented in the lyrics and you will find its obverse lurking beneath. ‘Paradise’ may be a paean to the joys of committed romance, but when Adu sings “Ooooh, what a life” she sounds as bored as an heiress surveying the prospect of another anhedonic week of champagne and cocaine.
This level of irony and detachment may now be de rigeur in certain musical circles—it’s much the same force that propels the Weeknd’s excellent ‘The Morning’ and Destroyer’s soft-disco epic ‘Bay of Pigs’. Yet in the context of late eighties pop, and in a world where music streaming services didn’t exist to offer listeners deep silos of self-directed musical interest, Stronger Than Pride offered a salutary lesson in the accessibility of rich contradictions, one that the musical culture is still absorbing today.