I have always found it interesting to consider the work of Sade in two distinct trilogies: Diamond Life, Promise, and Stronger Than Pride make up the first, and then comes what I think of as the Lover’s Trilogy. Love Deluxe, Lovers Rock, and Soldier Of Love are albums I consider to be linked by their commitment to endurance and retreat. Even the covers of the albums tell a story of the latter. On each of them, Sade Adu shifts further and further away from the camera’s gaze. On Love Deluxe, Adu has her arms wrapped around herself, eyes closed and head tilted back. It is a pose that is vulnerable and empowering – a symbol that the pursuit of love begins and ends with the self. On the cover of Lovers Rock, we are met with a profile of the artist, her face shifted away from the camera, and her gaze turned downward. On the cover of Soldier Of Love, Adu is turned away from the camera entirely. She is, instead, facing a small bit of desolate land that stretches into a body of water. The covers of this trilogy of albums, released over 18 years, tell their own story, even before the music does. A story about love, about a public life, about trust. All of them, a series of small retreats.
In the middle of this trilogy is 2000’s Lovers Rock, which turns 20 years old today. After Love Deluxe, Sade fell out of the spotlight for nearly eight years. By the time she was making Love Deluxe, her marriage to Spanish film director Carlos Pliego had fallen apart, which is vaguely (and at times not as vaguely) represented in the album’s ruminations on desire, distance, the pursuit of reciprocation. But, at its other extreme, Love Deluxe is a monument to the possibility of what love can be when two people are simultaneously pursuing its heights. It makes for a heartbreaking conflict, the singer’s dreams impossible to untangle from her reality.
During her move away from the public eye, Sade recovered from the dissolution of her marriage. Her home in North London (literally) fell apart and had to be rebuilt. She found love again, and had a daughter. All of this as rumors swirled about depression and addiction. Her bandmates Stuart Matthewman, Paul Denman, and Andrew Hale immersed themselves in side projects and poured themselves into the careers of other musicians. (Matthewman, for example, helped usher Maxwell’s career to new heights.)
And it must be said – after a career that offered four stellar albums in less than a decade, if Sade were to have called it quits after 1992, that would have been fine. If Sade Adu herself retreated into what some would call obscurity, but what she would likely call a dedication to the living of a life filled with a newfound understanding of love’s limits and limitlessness, that would have been more than fine. The artist that the public receives is sometimes an illusion. A funhouse mirror version of the self, the actual human self, where some of the emotional features, curiosities, and concerns are exaggerated while others are reduced. It is a game that undoubtedly makes for exhaustion, heightened by how an artist’s identity and desire for privacy plays into a public’s hunger for access into their lives. That dynamic was relevant to Sade, a woman who sang about love, and desire, but kept the most intimate details of her loves and desires to herself.
It is also one thing to sing about the pursuit of love, or how an understanding of the flimsy nature of love can offer an appreciation for how it can, briefly, awaken the spirit. But to reach this understanding requires an ability to live the investments placed into song. In the span of eight years, Sade had fallen out of love, and fallen into two different types of new love — joyful confrontations that, no doubt, required space to be reckoned with.
The result of this reckoning was Lovers Rock, which was recorded in a little under a year. “By Your Side” is both one of the great album-opening tracks of all time, and also makes plain what I have always loved most about Sade as not only a writer of language, but as someone who has always seemed to move through the world with an openness, a comfort with the possibility of intense feeling. It is possible to be obsessed with or curious about romance and not be a romantic yourself. The best Sade love songs tackle the in-progress stage of the relationship. Not always the glamourous in-progress stages, either. The parts that feel like work, that feel impossible. The moments where a person isn’t exactly sure how they got to where they got to, but they have come to fear what might rest on the other side more than their rigorous certainty. It is clinical and maybe entirely devoid of romance when laid out this way, but the best Sade love songs treat love as what it can feel like sometimes: a series of negotiations, a measurement of staying against leaving, an understanding that some wonderful union might one day crumble but weighing its worthwhile goodness in the meantime. “By Your Side” is a song about love but also a song about exhaustion, about the impossibility of repeated lifting – a song that is romantic, that is platonic, that is motherly.
It is also a rare beam of hope on an album that is drenched in mourning, in an almost predetermined condition of grief. More than any Sade album before it, Lovers Rock is sonically sparse, and plays more like a memoir than a piece of music. Its sequencing oscillates between songs like “King Of Sorrow” and “Somebody Already Broke My Heart” directly into considerations about the strength of eternity like “All About Our Love,” though it’s worth noting that the songs that traffic in a kind of explicitly unburdened romance are the shortest on the album, with both “All About Our Love” and an ode to her child, “The Sweetest Gift,” both clocking in at under three minutes. They are woven into the album amidst its sadness, or the rage of songs like “Immigrant,” which expanded on the political awakening the band had found itself immersed in at the start of the ’90s.
Lovers Rock sitting directly in the center of the Lover’s Trilogy is too perfect, because it is the Sade album where the imagined reality of what love is capable of goes out the window. An understanding of its limits, particularly the limits of interpersonal love, which really simply amount to the limits of what people allow themselves to hold, or express. There are those who would have imagined that Sade Adu would have returned, risen from the ashes of a decade that gave her heartbreak and then reawakened her. That she might have been awash with gratitude and not despair. But Sade Adu, as a writer, is committed to the truth of an emotion. She is as much goth, or emo, as anything else.
“King Of Sorrow” opens with the line “I’m crying everyone’s tears,” and it gets to the heart of what the album is asking a listener to believe. Emotional suffering, too, can be an achievement. Not traversing it, or overcoming it. But simply feeling the weight of it with the same ferocity that love could once be felt. “Just another day and nothin’s any good,” as the song also goes. To know the massive heartbreaks that Sade Adu knew, and to retreat into them, is to understand that sadness has its appealing corners. It can hold you just as close if it’s all you’ve got in the moment. And the real secret wrestling underneath Lovers Rock, through all of its melancholic tentativeness, is this: You might be a better lover to someone, somewhere, if you’ve done your time on the other side of the feeling, and if you’ve done your time well. If you’ve done it generously, and without bowing to the desires of a public, eager for the news of your mess. There is a beauty in withholding, in giving people not what they want, but what you need them to want.