SADE The Ultimate Collection (RCA/Epic) 

Description: theultimatecollection.jpgPossibly living up to its name in terms of track selection, spreading 29 tracks, five of them previously unreleased, over six sides of vinyl, the packaging of this new compilation seems a bit meagre. There’s no context-setting essay or career appreciation, just some fetching photography. Perhaps more effort could have been implied to render the album as luxurious as the brand image befits.


It seems unfair to tarnish Sade – the lady and the band – with memories of the acquisitive era in which she and they rose to prominence, but the early material here (“Your Love Is King” and “Smooth Operator”, for example) positively reeks of wine bars and red braces; it’s the way that saxophone oozes over the music that’s so unsettling. Perhaps due to her/their relatively anonymous persona, though, she and they haven’t become inextricably entwined with the music, and as the layers shift almost imperceptibly though the years a social conscience and beating heart emerge that elude that earlier material, which seems to spend a great deal of effort talking about emotions without any evidence of actually feeling any.


“Is It A Crime”’s jazzy drama and the desiccated funk of “Never As Good As The First Time” and “Paradise” shatter the smooth stereotype. “Jezebel” is where proceedings start to thaw, Helen sounding more like she’s singing rather than just performing, and beginning to appear engaged. This new warmth courses tastefully through “Paradise”, dated by its breathy synth sounds though it may be. There are some harsh and tricky economic realities beneath “Feel No Pain”, if somewhat glibly expressed, and “Bullet Proof Soul” somehow transcends its somewhat lumpen lyrics and faux-luxe music to become a luminous highlight.


The later material is infused with the kind of luxuriant professionalism that accompanies a work rate of an album a decade. “Pearls”’ string arrangement seems at odds with, and softens, its tale of sun-baked Somalian poverty; “Immigrant”’s jangles almost abstractly at times. “King Of Sorrow” is deceptively subtle in the manner of mid-80s Bryan Ferry (that’s a compliment, incidentally), and the brief, contemplative piano piece “The Sweetest Gift” is unexpected territory for a compilation to cover. “Soldier Of Love” and “The Moon And The Sky” display the gentlest of hip hop influences; it’s all about the beats! (Not that there’s anything chronologically predating them on this compilation that could in any way be described as having “beats”.)


Of the new material, there’s an eloquent, deliciously liquid version of Thin Lizzy’s “Still In Love With You” that makes me wish the next Sade album (due in 2020, at this rate) is a covers project. “Love Is Found” and a remix of “The Moon And The Sky” are joltingly urban, the latter not helped by Jay-Z’s artless monotone rapping, strangely alien in this context, and “I Would Never Have Guessed” offers more of that unexpectedly sparse piano and vocal duetting.


Sonically, there’s a kind of lisping, sandpaper edge to many of the tracks on vinyl, undoing rather too much of the relaxing effect of the music and unfortunately underlining the suspicion that the album’s not quite as ultimate as it’s painted.