Saturday, February 15, 2020

Diamond Life (1984)

When Sade's first album arrived—technically it's a band, a sort of rock band even, named after the lead singer—it seemed to be part of the latest nostalgia product at the time, with something like a return to lounge music and glamour, performed in tails and glittery dresses under lights at keyboards. Candlelight, clinking glasses, smart fashion, murmuring conversation—never a threat to anyone's hearing. It seemed to belong with acts like late Roxy Music, Simply Red, Paul Weller and Style Council, Everything But the Girl etc. Later dubbed "sophisti-pop" and/or "smooth soul" by crews of categorizers (with soupcon of "quiet storm" and "smooth jazz"), intentions of irony were unclear but seemed likely. It felt more like the '80s than the '60s (early or late), more like Ronald Reagan (on this side of the Atlantic) than Stax—a slight put-on. But it is not. The Blue Note vibe of the cover design is true to the intentions, deftly mixing up jazz and melodic elements. Adopting the New Wave convention of a signifying cover song, Sade's choice was Timmy Thomas's 1972 "Why We Can't Live Together," closing the album with a version so faithful it is practically verbatim. That was my original hook, spooky alluring and haunting, and I would sit through the second side to get to it. Eventually the whole thing opened up but it still took some years to get closer to the bottom of it. There's something in this music that churns at deepest levels. It's never cheesy, not even when it names one of its tragic characters "Beans" (actually Vince, I looked it up, but I've always heard Beans). For me, surprisingly enough, Diamond Life turns out to be music about loss, or made for times of loss anyway, when I have found it most useful, soothing, dare I say healing. Eventually it turned into one of my upside-down albums, when I finally flipped it over and found the first side just as good. I mean, how did I miss "Smooth Operator" and "Hang on to Your Love"? To this day Diamond Life properly starts for me on "Cherry Pie" and finishes on "When Am I Going to Make a Living"—perfectly apt as a parting shot as my times of loss have also included loss of employment, which happened too often for too long. Sade knows well the kinds of things we're up against in this cold dirty world—Sade the band, and Sade the singer too, as she has a hand in writing all the songs except the cover. Desolation, bad cops, drug addiction, crashed relationships, abuse. Sade has seen it all. This Diamond Life is more like blood diamond life. But it is always achingly beautiful, no matter what. It's almost as if it's asserting dissonance as the copout. The real strength, the real beauty, is letting your light shine even against the ugliness, even when your light only exposes the unpleasant details of reality. There's so much poignant dignity here.

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