Following the incredible success of their debut LP, 1984’s Diamond Life, Sade barely had time to draw a breath when they quickly set about recording a follow-up. The success of their first LP had come after a rather lengthy period of touring and promoting the record on both sides of the Atlantic. Diamond Life was perfect in every way, and while Promise offers many glimpses of their brilliance, it falls a little short of the mark. They had set a high standard the first time out and many of these songs sound as though they could have been leftovers, which by no means is a bad thing.
The first half of the album is just as good as anything from Diamond Life, but the vitality falls off a little within the last few tracks. The seductive groove of opener “Is It A Crime” remains one of the group’s most pleasing efforts to date. The boys were able to fuse jazz with modern day pop so effortlessly it’s ridiculous. Add to that the sexy, breathless and slightly evasive vocals of Sade Adu and the listener is immediately reminded what a class act these folks really are.
“The Sweetest Taboo” is probably the most “pop” song on the record, and it still remains one of my personal favorites. The lyrical content is sparse but Adu sounds sweetly sincere in declaring her love for her man. With “War Of The Hearts” and “You’re Not The Man,” we are treated to more of the same lush, jazzy arrangements. The former is given the pop treatment while the latter is probably the most traditional jazz the band has recorded to date.
Fan favorite “Jezebel” keeps the vibe laidback and luxurious all at once. Adu’s lyrics can sometimes be a tad evasive with little or no embellishment of her many character studies. This is true of “Jezebel,” who we never learn much about; still, it’s a beautiful ballad and remains a popular song on the band’s all-too-rare tours. “Mr. Wrong” could easily be titled “Smooth Operator Part 2” due to the man in question who still hasn’t learned from his mistakes and doesn’t care to change his habits either. Musically, it’s a groovy track punctuated by some great percussion, and Adu’s indifferent delivery is cooler than ever.
“Punch Drunk” is a sax-led instrumental that gives the boys a chance to show off their chops, while “Never As Good As The First Time” is a funk-inspired pop song that was the last single released from the album. Its upbeat arrangement is in stark contrast to Adu’s laconic lament of her first true love, but again, her refusal to develop the story is a tad annoying. If the album ended here, it would be as close to matching their impressively superb debut as they could have hoped for. However, with the last three songs, you get the feeling that ideas were running thin and the record just ends up overstaying its welcome.
“Fear” is almost boring, and if you manage to hear it out you’ll be struck by the oddity of a drum march stuck right in the middle of the track for no apparent reason. By that stage, it’s downright confusing, and surely someone should have suggested maybe it’s not such a great idea after all. “Tar Baby” is the kind of slow pop groove that the band could play in their sleep; it just never gets anywhere memorable and Adu’s lyrics are too incoherent to care about much at all. The album closes on a more promising note with Adu’s ode to a late childhood friend, “Maureen.” It’s a sad story that’s oddly given a cool, breezy arrangement, therefore missing the sentiment entirely.
Promise went on to top both the US and UK charts on its way to going triple platinum, helping to cement Sade’s status as a genuine contender in the fickle pop market of the ‘80s. It’s hard for me (a big Sade fan) to label this album their worst because, quite frankly, in spite of a few uninspiring tracks every now and then, none of their releases are anything less than wonderfully crafted intelligent pop music. Having said that, Promise is the one album with more of those uninspired moments than any other.