Today on Pitchfork, we are taking a critical look at the UK band Sade—from quiet storm mainstays to defining a generational vibe—with new reviews of four of their records.
Sade’s discography has no sharp pivots or seismic reinventions, but there are plenty of slight tweaks and shifts. On Stronger Than Pride, self-produced after collaborator Robin Millar went blind during the recording of Promise, the English band began to whittle down their sound. Dispensing with the nightclub swing and louche, haunted characters of Diamond Life and Promise, Sade’s third album turned the band’s elegant, composed music into meditation, exploring romance as an interior experience.
After releasing and touring their first two records in quick succession, the band took a breather for Stronger Than Pride. Written in Spain and London and then recorded in France and the Bahamas over the course of a year, the album took shape casually. Guitarist and saxophonist Stuart Matthewman recalled it as the first time the band composed songs piecemeal rather than as a collective, an approach perceptible in the looseness of the compositions. The album is a breezy, unrushed affair, where songs loop back in on themselves, sway in place, and fizzle out. Sade doesn’t do outright jams, but “Keep Looking” and “Give It Up” come close, locking into grooves and letting the melodies leisurely unfurl. The latter even features some horn blasts—practically an indulgence, given the band’s tendency toward restraint and poise. While Sade doesn’t reinvent itself on Stronger Than Pride, it does unwind.
The music on Stronger Than Pride is reduced on all fronts: softer rhythms, lighter melodies, fleeter verses. “I wanted it to be more basic and less embellished, with the quiet songs quieter and the harder songs harder,” band leader Sade Adu said at the time. The record isn’t as minimal as that quote suggests (especially when compared to the ethereal, hollowed-out mood music of Love Deluxe), but it is certainly sparse. The arrangement on lithe title track “Love Is Stronger Than Pride” is open like a cloudless sky, carried by a patter of keys, percussion, and pan flute that drift around Sade’s airy voice. As she sings of a love that endures a betrayal, the weightlessness of the arrangements sells her candor. “I still really, really love you,” she croons.
Adu maintains the directness and simplicity of the title track throughout the record. Her writing is noticeably less scenic and moody, treating love as more of a concept than an embodied experience. “To turn my back on you/Now would I turn my back on me?” she asks on the dubby “Turn My Back on You,” perhaps the only Sade song that could be described as hard. “Give it up, give it all” on “Give It Up” is delivered less like a steamy bedroom command and more like a call to prayer. Compared to the glitz and melodrama of hits like “Smooth Operator,” “Is It a Crime?”and “Jezebel,” these songs don’t have much sizzle or flair. But there is an emotional clarity to these spare lyrics—a cleanness almost, as if Adu has rinsed them in cold water.
The writing takes on a mantric bent as Adu reuses phrases and words from previous verses and repeats them by herself or alongside background singer (and secret weapon) Leroy Osbourne, whose rich voice adds warmth to her cool melodies. “Wanna share my life/Wanna share my life with you,” they duet on the upbeat “Paradise.” “Nothing can come/Nothing can come/Nothing can come/Between us,” they incant on “Nothing Can Come Between Us.” These chants aren’t particularly catchy, but their repetition imbues the record with a quiet anguish. Despite their outward mellowness, these songs always have a faint darkness at the edges.
Matthewman, Paul Denman (bass), and Andrew Hale (keyboard) play up the loneliness and fear lurking behind all the affirmation. On the drumless “Haunt Me,” which is replete with lush riffs and fills, the production wafts around Sade’s pining whispers like a perfume cloud. “Haunt me/In my dreams/If you please,” she beckons nervously. Where most pop ballads center the voice, “Haunt Me” allows it to sink into the abyss. On “I Never Thought I’d See the Day,” another breakup tale, the voice is the focal point, Adu hitting the top of her range as Denman’s restrained strums and Hale’s hushed chords fuse into a fluid void. “I wish you could shelter me,” she nearly belts, her voice streaking through the amorphous mix like a lightning bolt. She sounds utterly alone.
Stronger Than Pride is buoyed by Sade’s ability to coalesce around Sade Adu’s directions, fleshing her ideas out or ceding them space to bloom. The band, especially Adu, is sometimes mocked for being risk-averse and even-keeled—never breaking stride or cutting loose like the divas, heartthrobs, and pop rockers they adjoined on the charts—but in a way, their faith in each other is their gamble. Matthewman once described his bandmates as conduits, saying, “Sade doesn’t play guitar, but she plays it through me…we all kinda play each other that way.” Stronger Than Pride is the sound of Sade calibrating that affinity and establishing—for listeners and for themselves—that they are a unit.
Buy: Rough Trade