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Music: Sade * * *

Sade only brings out an album when she's got something to say, and her latest collection of songs are well worth a listen, writes Eamon Carr

It seemed like a mistake when, to announce the imminent arrival of what is just Sade's sixth studio album in a 25-year career, her record company invited a bunch of DJs, music writers and sponsorship clients to a late-afternoon playback in a fashionable nightclub. Of course I was there. Didn't Sade's adviser, my mentor Brian St John Carr, cause consternation back in the day by having her sign with Sony while another major label waited, with Champagne and contracts, for her to show up and sign for them?

As her debut album, with the hits Your Love Is King and Smooth Operator, reaffirmed the potential of the musical genre known as "quiet storm", it wasn't always obvious to her detractors that Sade was a tougher proposition than many imagined.

Her music was dismissed by some as an insipid cocktail bar background soundtrack. Clearly, with its cool jazz and soul roots, it was more than that.

So fast forward to a few weeks ago and marvel at how Sony's head office could think that unveiling Soldier of Love at a chatty reception in a dimly lit club could help us get to grips with the subtleties of ten previously unheard songs. The plan almost backfired because more than one opinion-former left muttering that the album sounded samey, old hat or dull. I almost agreed. But held off pontificating 'til I could become more intimately acquainted with the new work, Sade's first album since Lovers Rock in 2000.

She's 51 now. And mother of a 13-year-old daughter. Because she hasn't toured since 2001, she's been branded a recluse. The reality is more prosaic. She and her daughter live in a small town in the Cotswold Hills with her current partner, a former Royal Marine, and his son.

Last year she felt like making music again. "I only make records when I feel like I have something to say," she says.

The new songs chart familiar territory. The battlefield that is love. And it's said Sade knows a thing or two about heartbreak. She was married for six years to a Spanish film director. And the father of her daughter is a Jamaican musician.

A martial snare drum rat-a-tat propels the album title track which cleverly appropriates a sultry trip-hop ambience. Sade sounds a little smokier than her younger self, echoing Nina Simone. She doesn't set out to reinvent the wheel. The Moon and The Sky is a cri de coeur admonishing a lover who failed to "come get me one last time".

The overall mood of the album seems sombre, downbeat. And some songs, Long Hard Road and the meditative Morning Bird, while polished and delicate, fail to make a lasting impression. Be That Easy, with it's gurgling Hammond organ and understated slide guitar, sounds like something from the Norah Jones songbook. A trip-hop beat canters through Bring Me Home, underpinning Sade's timeless qualities. "I've cried the tears," she emotes. "The small step I need to take is a mountain."

In Another Time comes closest to a vintage soul standard, with muted brass recalling the heyday of Willie Mitchell's Hi label productions. But Sade's impeccable performance carries the day.

Soldier of Love is not an album you'd want to play before heading out for the evening. But it certainly fits the bill for when you want to chill.

Goodness, Sade even makes an exfoliating scrub sound sexy. "I'm gonna peel you away," she croons on Skin. "Cos you're not right within." In these recessionary times, the new Sade album promises to be a comforting lifestyle product.

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