Although her dusky alto croon is alluringly sensual, Sade is ultimately about control. On last year's Diamond Life, she debuted as a smooth operator indeed, gliding over the surfaces of pop accessibility and jazz sophistication with a coolness that implied she was holding back at least as much as she was letting go.
In its very title, Promise trades on this same tension, but it's a year later and I was hoping for more in the way of delivery. As the singer and her deft three-piece combo (and equally adept session men) move with relentless composure through these medium-tempo tales of the diamond life revisited, the careful elegance of the production and instrumental settings seems little more than a strategy to conceal the limitations of Sade's vocal range and skills as a song stylist.
As a lyricist, Sade moves in a cabaret world of dangerous "adult" emotions, where guilty pleasures and self-conscious romantic thrills continually threaten to undermine honest feeling. So while "Maureen" offers a moving elegy for a dead friend and "Mr. Wrong" urges a pushover girl to dump her playboy boyfriend, tunes like "Fear" (an overwrought flamenco-tinged love song for a matador, complete with Spanish verses) and "Never As Good As the First Time" (Hallmark take note: "Special moments that last/Were they as tender as we dare to remember") sink through the ice of Sade's stylized detachment into unintentional bathos.
For all its tasteful hooks, purling saxes, refined pianos and apt percussion, Promise fails to evoke either the sweet openness of pop or the hard-earned knowledge of jazz. Its insistent, seductive listenability is, unfortunately, its main virtue. (RS 466)
(Posted: Jan 30, 1986)
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