Happy 25th Anniversary to Sade’s Love Deluxe, originally released October 25, 1992.
I tend to subscribe to the idea that there is no such thing—in life, in art, in sport—as perfection. Indeed, it is the imperfections in all of us that define who we are and how we coexist with each other. But if there is one exception to this rule, it is most certainly Sade’s flawless fourth album, Love Deluxe.
A completely subjective sentiment, mind you. But one I’m confident more than a few of our readers wouldn’t dispute. Just nine songs deep including the concluding instrumental arrangement “Mermaid,” the band’s soul-affirming masterpiece is altogether devoid of fluff, with filler fare nowhere to be found. Granted, the same can arguably be said for its trio of precursors, 1984’s Diamond Life, 1985’s Promise and 1988’s Stronger Than Pride.
Co-produced by the band’s longtime studio confidante Mike Pela, who has also blessed projects by other purveyors of cool melodica like Maxwell and Everything But the Girl, Love Deluxe doesn’t depart from the musical blueprint Sade developed as they rose to sophisticated pop prominence in the latter half of the ‘80s. Not that we’d ever want their music to stray from the standard, when their signature sound is so distinctive and endlessly enthralling. “We don’t have any rules,” group co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Matthewman admitted to Ebony in 2012. “We have a sound that only the four of us make. Part of the sound is not overplaying; it’s sort of minimalistic. There aren’t a bunch of big fancy solos or big chord changes. We like to keep things simple so it resonates.” And the streamlined, sonically sublime Love Deluxe resonates profoundly.
Loosely inspired by the vicissitudes of frontwoman Sade Adu’s six-year marriage to the Spanish film director Carlos Pliego (which ended in 1995), as well as the band’s heightened social conscience at the turn of the new decade, Love Deluxe is a stirring celebration of the human spirit, both its strength and fragility. Coupled with the expert, seemingly effortless ensemble musicianship of Matthewman, Paul Denman (bass) and Andrew Hale (keys), Adu’s captivating contralto once again caresses and comforts weary souls and vulnerable hearts across the LP’s eight vocal tracks, beginning with the insistent and intimate album-opening lead single “No Ordinary Love.” Evoking the desperation of trying to secure an elusive love, the song begins with one of the most devastating intros ever, as Sade sings, “I gave you all the love I got / I gave you more than I could give / I gave you love / I gave you all that I have inside / And you took my love / You took my love.”
The theme of unreciprocated love resurfaces seven songs later on the dense, drum-machine driven torch song “Bullet Proof Soul,” which doubles as Adu’s proclamation of redemption and resilience, as she refuses to allow the emotional bullets of a wayward lover to penetrate her spirit, admitting near the song’s conclusion that “I came in like a lamb / But I intend to leave like a lion.”
Not all is doom and gloom when it comes to romance, however, as the band craft three of their most evocative and enduring love songs to date in the middle passage of the album’s sequencing. Paramount among these is the wonderful “Kiss of Life,” the third single largely propelled by Denman’s prominent bass groove and Adu’s endearingly sweet lyrics. I’ve adored this song since the first time my ears were seduced by it, so it came as no surprise to my wife that I dedicated it to her on our wedding day (for the record, her choice for me was Katie Melua’s acoustic version of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”). When Adu declares, “There must have been an angel by my side / Something heavenly came down from above / He led me to you / He led me to you,” I can’t help but think about the life-altering moment that I first met my wife-to-be that evening back in October 2005. Pretty sure that the sky over Brooklyn was indeed full of love that night.
Accentuated by Matthewman’s saxophone flourishes throughout, the subdued “I Couldn’t Love You More” is Adu’s ardent articulation of fidelity to her paramour. On the soaring “Cherish the Day,” the fourth and final single released from the album, a wistful Adu sings of finding a love so supreme that nothing in this life or beyond can ever compete (“If you were mine / I wouldn’t want to go to heaven”). “If I had to pick one it would be ‘Cherish the Day,’” she confided when prompted to choose a personal favorite from Love Deluxe during a 1992 interview with the accomplished journalist Michael A. Gonzales. “But I don’t know why. I just like it. I think it’s really quite deep, but at the same time it’s a love song. It’s funny, most of the songs I can’t tell you if I really like them or not; it’s really hard to be objective about it. But, ‘Cherish the Day,’ I know if I heard it on the radio I would say, ‘God, this is good. Who is this?’ The rest of them, I don’t know.”
Three songs expand Sade’s thematic focus beyond the central concepts of love gained and love lost, showcasing the band’s appreciation and empathy for the human condition. Percussive second single “Feel No Pain” is a compassionate call-to-arms that reminds us to treat the poverty-stricken with the dignity and decency they deserve, while encouraging us to do what we can to ease people’s suffering in times of financial turmoil and family upheaval.
A powerful narrative of a poor Somalian woman foraging for food to feed her daughter, the symphonic, strings-laden “Pearls” finds Adu cleverly juxtaposing the material indulgences so many take for granted with the fundamental human needs that define the protagonist’s struggle and bravery. Introduced in the opening verse, the imagery of the pearls—revealed to represent grains of rice later in the song—reinforces the often stark difference in what people seek and value, depending on the life circumstances that fate has bestowed upon them.
Inspired by a conversation Adu once had with a man in New York City and imbued with Matthewman’s acoustic, flamenco style guitar work, the hauntingly beautiful “Like a Tattoo” examines the emotional devastation of war and the permanent, guilt-ridden imprint of regret that many embroiled in battle feel for the entirety of their lives (“Like the scar of age / Written all over my face / The war is still raging inside of me / I still feel the chill / As I reveal my shame to you / I wear it like a tattoo / I wear it like a tattoo / I wear it like a tattoo”).
The album concludes with the atmospheric, multi-layered instrumental jam “Mermaid” that conjures imagery of underwater exploration through its ambient textures, a preview of the sounds that would appear four years later on Denman, Hale and Matthewman’s debut album recorded under the Sweetback moniker and released in 1996 during the eight-year interim between Love Deluxe and Lovers Rock (2000)
If ever there was a band whose musical output embodies the notion of “quality over quantity,” it’s unquestionably Sade. Throughout the past thirty-three years, the group has delivered just six studio albums, and half of these have arrived in the past twenty-five years. Celebrated together, Sade’s recorded repertoire—while sparse relative to other artists who are prone to falling victim to the “haste makes waste” approach to recording—is one of the most consistently revelatory and rewarding discographies you’ll ever lay your ears on. And for my money, Love Deluxe remains their magnum opus, its unequivocal brilliance still shining as bright as ever two and a half decades on.