Oct 12, 2018

SADE - Diamond Life (Epic Records 26044, 1984)

As you start digging deeper into every musical style, no matter how bland or boring or dumb it may seem, you're pretty much bound to discover at least a few gems in each and every one of them. "Diamond Life" defines "adult contemporary" if there ever was a definition of the term, yet it's a minor masterpiece of the genre, which can totally change your mind on it in general - a little bit of goodwill included, that is. Before we get to the songs and the sound, let's remember that Sade, initially at least, was a band, not just a gal - and one person in that band at least is almost as much (or even more) responsible for that sound than Sade Adu herself; that is guitar and sax player Stuart Matthewman, who, indeed, played all the guitars and saxes on the album (a pretty rare combination), and also co-wrote most of the songs with Sade. Together, they got this sound which at first seems extremely ordinary. You know - kind of a soft jazz thingie, with lulling Paul Simon-like keyboards, saxes, soft chuckling percussion, and suchlike. Sting and Kenny G and Phil Collins come to mind immediately. But it's pretty dumb when you realize that, but this sound did not really exist until 1984. Well, okay, I know of one band that did it before 1984, and that's Steely Dan. Steely Dan are obviously a big influence on here.

But Steely Dan were history in 1984, and pop-writing people were mostly concentrating on electronics at the time. In dire contrast, most of the instrumentation on "Diamond Life" is non-electronic; apart from the keyboards (where actual pianos are used just as often as synths, and they never ever resort to using these generic Casio monsters), you got your basic drum-bass-guitar-sax arrangements, nothing else. The instrumental melodies themselves aren't much to think of, but that's pretty much in the Steely Dan tradition as well; they're there to establish a decent, or occasionally, haunting backdrop to the vocals, and given that the band is tight, well oiled, and always eager to establish a strong groove (after all, most of them had already played for years in the "funk congregation" Pride), I have no problem with that. Which leaves us with the vocals, and they're impeccable.

Almost every song on here is crafted carefully enough to provide you with an unforgettable hook, even if some of these hooks might be way too repetitive to seem truly outstanding; and Sade's vocal delivery is smooth, slick, and unnerving, but quite unique - even considering that she can be firmly categorized as one of those "cold" singerines as opposed to the "hot" ones. I've once encountered a review of this album which accused Sade of sounding too 'phoney' - nothing could be more ridiculous than that, because in order to come across as 'phoney' you have to have at the very least an overexaggerated 'emotional' delivery, and Sade gets on by sounding as emotionally-detached as possible, never too loud, never too quiet, never too trebly, never too "mumbly", yet with an unmistakable profound charm of her own that prevents her from seeming bland.

Back in the summer 1984, it seemed that everywhere you went, this album was being played. From the release of "Your Love Is King" as a single in February 1984, and then the album "Diamond Life", in late July this was the soundtrack to 1984. It seemed that wherever you went, Sade was playing. Her voice streamed out of the radio, it was played in shops and every passing car seemed to be playing "Diamond Life". Seemingly out of nowhere, Sade was not just flavor of the month, but flavor of the year. Her smooth and soulful voice, was everywhere. This was a much more sophisticated sound than much of the music that was around back then, and quickly, her star was very much in the ascendency. In the following few months, "Diamond Life" sold over six million copies, making Sade one of the most successful singers of the decade. Since then, she has released five further albums over a twenty-six year period. In this article, I’l tell you about Sade’s career, and then just why "Diamond Life" was such a hugely successful album. Before forming Sade, Sade Adu, Staurt Matthewman and Paul Spencer Denham, had been members of Latin soul band Pride. In 1982, those three members of Pride decided to form their own band. They were joined by Paul Anthony Cook. The group was named Sade, after lead singer Sade Adu. Together, they started writing their own material. In 1983, Andrew Hale joined the band, but Cook left in 1984. 

Their first live show was at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, in December 1982, supporting former band Pride. May 1983, saw Sade play their debut American show, at the legendary Danceteria, in New York. By now, Sade were attracting interest from both the media and record companies. Eventually, in October 1983, Sade signed a record contract with Portrait Records, a subsidiary of Epic Records. Having headed to the recording studio, Sade released their debut single "Your Love Is King" in February 1984. "Your Love Is King" was a huge hit, reaching number six in the UK singles chart. It’s still Sade’s highest UK single chart position. All was looking well for the release of debut album, "Diamond Life" in July 1984. Like their debut single, "Diamond Life" was a huge hit. It reached number two in the UK album charts, and eventually, sold over six million copies. Suddenly, Sade were huge stars. Three further singles, "When Am I Going To Make A Living", "Smooth Operator" and "Hang On To Your Love" were released. The following year, 1985, Sade won a Brit Awards for best album.

November 1985, saw Sade release the follow-up to "Diamond Life". Although not as huge a seller as "Diamond Life", "Promise" was well received by critics, and became their first album to be number one in both the UK and US. Three singles, "The Sweetest Taboo", "Never As Good As the First Time" and "Is It A Crime" were released. Sade had hits in the US with "Sweetest Taboo" and "Never As Good As the First Time". Nearly three years would pass, before Sade released another album. May 1988 saw the release of "Stronger Than Pride". Again, Sade had another successful album on their hands, and "Stronger Than Pride" reached number three in the UK album charts. This lead to the album being certified platinum status. Four singles were released from "Stronger Than Pride", with the first single, "Paradise" reaching the top twenty in the US and top thirty in the UK. A further three years would pass before their next album "Love Deluxe" was released in November 1992. It too, was a huge success, reaching number three in the US and number six in the UK. It was eventually certified gold in the UK, and four times platinum in the US. Like "Stronger Than Pride", four singles were released from "Love Deluxe". The following year, Sade recorded a cover of "Please Send me Someone To Love", the old Percy Mayfield classic, for the film Philadelphia. 1994 saw Sade awarded a Grammy for "No Ordinary Love", which had featured in the film Indecent Proposal. Sade received a Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Group or Duo. Later that year, In November, Sade released a compilation album "The Best of Sade". It reached number six in the UK and nine in the US and was a huge seller. In the UK it went platinum, selling over 300,000 copies and in the US went platinum four times over, selling over four million copies. 

After an absence of eight years, a new album was released by Sade. "Lovers Rock" was released in November 2000. Unlike their previous album, "Lovers Rock" failed to break into the top ten. It stalled at number eighteen. However, it still sold over 500,000 copies and was certified gold by the BPI. In the US, the album fared much better, reaching number three and winning Sade a Grammy Award for Best Pop Album in 2002. Having thought that eight years between albums was a long time, fans of Sade had to wait ten years until the release of "Soldier of Love", in February 2010. The album’s release was welcomed by critics, who thought the album was a welcome return to form from Sade. On its release, the album was huge commercial success, entering the UK album charts at number four, giving Sade their highest chart position since "Promise" in 1986. In the US, the album sold 502,000 copies in its first week of release, and debuted at number one, selling over 1.1 million copies. Even though Sade had been away for ten years, they hadn’t lost their magic touch. Let’s hope it isn’t another ten years until their next album. Having told you about Sade’s career, I’ll now tell you just what made their debut album "Diamond Life", such a special album. "Diamond Life" opens with "Smooth Operator". Percussion plays gently, a saxophone blows, the tempo is low, the atmosphere laid back, as Sade Adu’s smooth and dulcet tones emerge for the first time. Straight away, you’re enthralled, transfixed by the sheer beauty of her voice. Her phrasing is perfection, she leaves space in her delivery and a jazz influence can be heard in her voice. As she sings, the rest of the band play subtly behind her vocal. Occasionally, Stuart Mathhewman’s saxophone rasps, but he too, ensures he doesn’t do anything to overpower Sade’s vocal. Already, it’s hard to believe that you’re listening to a debut album, such is the maturity of the performance on the opening track. You’re left marveling at such a brilliant opening track, wondering whether the rest of the album will be just as good.

As "Your Love Is King" opens, a saxophone plays, setting the scene. The scene is sultry and seductive, as Sade sings. Her voice has a maturity, she never once loses control, always sings within herself. As she takes a break, Mathhewman’s saxophone takes over. His solo is stunning, it soars towards the heavens, and is a fitting substitute for Sade’s soulful voice. It’s one of the highlights of the song. Then, as Sade returns, the saxophone reappears, playing much quieter, gently interjecting, sometimes just filling spaces left by Sade. Overall, the arrangement is perfect, it’s understated. Nothing is added by producer Robin Millar, he just allows the band to play naturally, lets them shine. What he ends up with, is a stunning track, one that has a timeless quality that many great songs possess. After two slower tracks, the tempo increases with "Hang On To Your Love". Drums, keyboards and percussion play at the start. Andrew Hale leaves plenty space between the notes on keyboards, this is highly effective adding almost a sense of drama. Around him, the drums and percussion are quicker. Hale’s playing is a nice contrast. When Sade sings, her vocal is quicker, but still, that soulful voice delivers the song clearly. Here her voice is slightly higher. Behind her, the rest of the band, have their opportunity to shine, as they almost jam. A piano plays a great solo, while the drums provide a steady backdrop. Everyone gets in on the act, and when Sade rejoins, she too, joins in, into what is a much looser arrangement. Her vocal becomes much more free, almost improvising. Not everyone can carry this of, but Sade does, and demonstrates how versatile and talented a singer she is. Although quite different from the previous two songs, in that there is much more of a jazz influence present, "Hang On To Your Love" maintains the high standard already set by Sade. To me, the variation in style is welcome, and with a much longer song, Sade and the rest of the band can experiment more, showing just how talented a band they are.

"Frankie’s First Affair" starts with one of the sultriest saxophone solos that will ever caress your ears. Straight away, this sets the mood, even before Sade sings. When the does sing, her voice starts quietly and then gradually, veers higher. She’s accompanied by the saxophone which softly plays, interjecting subtly. As the track progresses, and Sade’s voice soars, the saxophone starts to soar. They accompany each other during the track, one the perfect foil for the other. Having said all that, it took more than two people to make this track. However, it’s Sade and Mathhewman on saxophone that are the main players in what is a tale of love gone wrong. As the track ends, you’ve been drawn into the drama described by Sade, you wonder who was Frankie and exactly what went wrong. The preceding four and half minutes of dramatic and heartfelt music, have allowed you to. "When Am I Going To Make A Living" begins with keyboards, drums and percussion uniting, until Sade makes an appearance. As she joins, her voice is quieter, slightly more subdued. Here, the rest of the band seem louder, they’re much more prominent in this arrangement. They seem further forward in the mix. Sade still sings in front of them. Thankfully, they don’t overpower Sade, but later in the track, as she sings, they’re almost competing to be heard. It becomes an impressive competition, a great voice versus a great band. In the end, it’s honors even, no winner, no loser. The arrangement has been quite different. Previously, the band took care never to overpower Sade. This seemed to change here. However the arrangement worked, the drums were louder, the saxophone blew harder, reaching previously unattained heights. Overall, the sound was louder and fuller, and this impressive sound resulted in another triumph for Sade.

A bass plays, plodding sedentary, subtly, notes seemingly picked out carefully. Drums played equally subtly join in, at the start of "Cherry Pie". The tempo is much slower here, the arrangement is much more understated. Sade’s vocal sits unchallenged at the front on the mix. Behind her the band play a slight funky sound sometimes emerging. Mostly they play it straight, allowing Sade’s vocal to shine. She refuses to play it straight, and sometimes her vocal soars, she scats, then leaves space in her vocal. Straight away, the band fill the spaces, and more and more, we get a glimpse of some funky licks from the band. "Cherry Pie" sees the return of a looser vocal from Sade, and she veers into a much more jazzy influenced vocal. This she does well, and "Cherry Pie" ends granting us a preview of another side of Sade Adu, one I’d like to see much more of. "Sally" sees Sade sing in a much jazzier style. When you hear the song, it brings to mind dimly lit, smokey jazz clubs. A saxophone blows, rasping as the song opens, firmly establishing the dramatic atmosphere. When Sade joins in, this dramatic atmosphere continues. Quite simply, you’re transfixed. You almost hold your breath as Sade Adu sings the lyrics, which are bathed in pathos, and have the effect of tugging at your heartstrings. The arrangement is perfect for the song, saxophone, piano and drums combining masterfully to further increase an already dramatic atmosphere. Here, Sade surpasses herself, it’s as if she’s reserved such a stunning performance for such a tragically sad song, one that’s among the album’s highlights.

"When I Will Be Your Friend" begins, Sade’s voice is lighter, she sounds much happier. Gone is the intensity present on Sally. Here she sings the song quicker, her vocal still as good, veering between soft and low to much higher. She manages to hit the higher notes with ease. During the track drums and percussion play, a saxophone blows as the song moves smoothly along. The same soulfulness is present in Sade’s voice as usual, and here, her voice suits the arrangement, which ambles brightly and happily along. This song might lack the emotional intensity of the previous track, but it’s still a good song, albeit a much more lightweight song than "Sally". "Diamond Life" ends with "Why Can’t We Live Together". It begins with percussion playing, accompanied by a bass, then keyboards play, the solo beautiful, familiar like an old friend. Gradually, out of the percussion, emerges one of the most beautiful tracks on "Diamond Life". The introduction is long, dramatic, building up the tension. You find yourself anticipating Sade’s vocal, hoping that it’s worth the wait. When it arrives after two minutes, it’s well worth the wait. Her voice is questioning, it’s high, she pleads for an end to war. This plea is sincere, heartfelt. Then her vocal takes a break, and the band take over. As she reappears, if possible, her voice is better. Again, she decides to improvise, and as she does, guitar and keyboards join her. After improvising, her voice strengthens and soars, then just as you enjoy a vocal masterclass from Sade, the song suddenly ends. Thankfully, you memory of this masterful song is forever with you. Should that not be enough, all you need do is press play again, and luxuriate in the dulcet tones of the wonderful Sade Adu.

Earlier in this article, when reviewing this album, after the opening track "Smooth Operator", I posed the question whether, the rest of the album would be as good. I knew then, what the answer would be, and now, you know as well, that the answer is yes. There may only be nine tracks on "Diamond Life", it may only last forty-five minutes, but these are among some of the finest songs that you’ll ever hear on a debut album. "Diamond Life" was one of the most mature debut albums I’ve heard. Each of the nine songs featured some stunning vocals and really talented musicians. The lyrics were intelligent, thoughtful and sometimes, heartfelt. These songs tugged at your emotions, made you feel happy, sad and thoughtful. Various styles of music emerged on the album. There were jazz, soul and even funk influences throughout the album. Sade Adu for me, was the real star of "Diamond Life". She is one of the most talented vocalists of the past thirty years. Her voice is stunning, she can captivate an audience, transform a song and sing various styles of music. Not only is she a talented singer, she is a talented songwriter who cowrote eight of the songs on "Diamond Life". Anyone reading this review who hasn’t heard "Diamond Life", are missing hearing some wonderful music. It’s an album that deserves to be part of any record collection, and is a good introduction to Sade’s music. There are five further studio albums available, plus a Best of Sade compilation, each of which contains some marvelous music, music that once you’ve heard, you’ll always love, and always treasure. Standout Tracks: "Smooth Operator", "Your Love Is King", "Sally" and "Why Can’t We Live Together".

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