Sade but true

Music - Richard Cook just can't get into the groove of Sade's new album

Over lunch last week, my companion and I pricked up our ears at a familiar voice coming through the room's sound system. "Isn't that Sade?" I didn't think it could be, because the booming drum seemed ill at ease with the singer's usual tasteful lilt. But a few seconds of paying attention revealed that it was, indeed, Folasade Adu, the most work-shy of performers. Lovers Rock (Sony/Epic) is her first new record in eight years. Very few pop players can survive that kind of gap in their output. I toyed with a forkful of tagliatelle and tried to catch the words. "I want to cook you a soup/That warms your soul . . ." But Sade never heats us up, not really. Maybe that's why she sounds so well in centrally heated restaurants, a cooling, almost air-conditioned sound. In a mix that is already sparse, she barely registers her presence with the lyrics.

Eight years on, but this record shows no interest in change. Sade seems little exercised by the differences of today's music scene, which is nothing like the one she was last competing in. The first track, "By Your Side", is about as vigorous as the record gets - and, even here, it is only the bass-drum boom (although not a real one) that really injects pace. Otherwise, this Lovers Rock is a slow-motion sashay, as genteel as a foxtrot next to the bruising momentum of today's radio music. In some senses, its aloofness may be admirable, but her UK company can't have been pleased that the record debuted at a feeble No 18 in the album chart - and that, by week two, it was out of the Top 30. However, in the US, the record has scored an immediate bull's-eye, shifting a huge number of copies in its first week.

That neatly illustrates a telling difference between American and British music fandoms. While the US is the place that starts off such global phenomena as Eminem and Britney Spears, it also has a huge core audience of relative oldtimers who sustain such venerables as Eric Clapton, Sting and, well, Sade. She looks handsomely well preserved on the cover of Lovers Rock, but this slim, small-voiced Nigerian is actually older than Madonna, a middle-aged chanteuse who first stormed into London's pop elite in 1983, when she formed a band that she named after herself. Paul Denman, Andrew Hale and Stuart Matthewman were the other players, and they are also in the new record's line-up.

Like everyone else on the curious hothouse circuit of that time, full of young dandies who weren't sure if they wanted to run bands, clubs or drugs, Sade was an almost obsessive music fan. "I can't imagine anyone not having a big record collection," she told me around the time her first album was due out. This attitude perhaps accounts for her durability as a music-maker rather than a celebrity. Although she flirted with modelling and made a token appearance in Julien Temple's Absolute Beginners, Sade has resolutely held back from any kind of multimedia career. What she does is music, and not a great deal of that. She is rarely sighted, seldom interviewed, and as unlikely to figure in Hello! as she is to tackle a 40-cities-in-42-days tour.

Reclusiveness isn't the theme of Lovers Rock, but the album's essentially doleful timbre does seem like the story of somebody who doesn't get out much. Although Sade is not partial to belting out her songs, her signature tunes - the likes of "Smooth Operator" and "No Ordinary Love" - are upbeat, if not exactly lively. Most of the original material on Lovers Rock is inward-looking and full of suffering and hurt - "King of Sorrow", "Somebody Already Broke My Heart". One track, "Immigrant", is like a hip-hopper's diatribe bled down to its slow, remorseful skeleton. And, as with every Sade record, slow is what this album is. The group pad around the singer's voice, and the record unfolds at a manicured crawl.

You could complain that there is little to show for eight years of work (and, judging by the dates, the best part of a year in the studio), but perhaps nobody needs loads of Sade records anyway. However, she is a pop artist and, this time, she hasn't really come up with the hooks that a pop artist needs, no matter how singular they are. We finished our lunch and, in the street outside, neither of us could remember anything about what we had just heard.

The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, by Richard Cook and Brian Morton, is published by Penguin (£20)