Jessie Ware: Tough Love

Scott Wallace
25th Oct 2014

Jessie Ware's 2012 debut Devotion was one of the most startling debuts in recent memory. Continuing on with her collaborations with enigmatic dance producers like Joker and SBTRKT, the album was full of misty sonics and skittering beats, functioning as a bed for Ware's beautiful vocals. While a lot of critical discourse centred on the futurist leanings of "110%" and "Running," many of Ware's songs were clearly on the pop side of the pop-R&B line that she straddled so effortlessly. The follow-up album, Tough Love makes that pop leaning far more explicit.

It's difficult to say whether that's a criticism. The record's opening title track recalls one of the greatest pop masterminds of all time - Prince - and the results are stunning. Ware's keening soprano has never sounded better, and the glistening surfaces of the track are perfect for getting lost in for three-and-a-half nearly perfect minutes. Three songs later, however, "Say You Love Me," is a perfectly serviceable song, but there is something uncomfortably familiar about it; its lush acoustics and soaring chorus would not sound out of place on any episode of The X Factor.

It comes as no shock that that song is written by superstar Ed Sheeran. That Ware is not so much flirting as liaising with the mainstream is not necessarily a bad thing, though. Artists like Robyn and, more recently, Beyoncé have proven that there is no longer a dichotomy that separates "critic's music" from "pop music," and Ware's new album is not a total reinvention, but simply a streamlining of some of the more out-there leanings of her debut. There is still plenty of invention in the production, largely handled by BenZel, with contributions from Dave Okumu of Mercury Prize-nominated band The Invisible, Eminem collaborator Emile Haynie and previous Ware collaborator Julio Bashmore, but the actual songs seem lacking compared to what Ware has tackled in the past.

Songs on the record have been contributed by a varied cast of writers, including neo-soul stalwart Miguel, Blood Orange's Dev Hynes, Arctic Monkeys associate James Ford and the aforementioned Ed Sheeran. With this enormous list of collaborators, it's no surprise that the record sounds a little messy and unfocused. The trademark luxuriant quality of Miguel's contributions, particularly the drifting "Kind of... Sometimes... Maybe," gives the record some of its best songs, but they sit uncomfortably next to more manicured fare like the aforementioned "Say You Love Me" and the blossoming synths and strings of Okumu and Ford's "Cruel."

Even worse than that, some of the songs on the record are just plain forgettable. "Sweetest Song" attempts to create a sense of romance and warmth, but in the end just comes across as distant and mechanical. Later on, "Want Your Feeling" may have been written by Dev Hynes, but does not feature his sublime production style, rendering it rather bland, despite its endearingly sleepy approximation of disco. Despite moments like these, it would be entirely untrue to label any of these songs as "bad," in fact the excellent title track is matched in quality several times throughout, particularly by Julio Bashmore's fascinating "Keep on Lying," which features the record's most unusual production and a floating melody that Ware attacks with incredible feeling.

"Desire" is an excellent way to close the record. The production, credited to Nineteen85, makes Ware sound as if she is performing from the bottom of a canyon. "Take me as I am / Don't wanna be left alone," she sings, her voice closely multi-tracked to brilliant effect. The album's closer is a genuinely affecting piece of pop music, bolstered immensely by the wonderful production, and a perfect miniature representation of what makes Ware's music so special. It is not just the power of her vocals, but they way she is able to slot in perfectly with such adventurous collaborators. "Desire," like the best songs on Tough Love, throws into sharp relief the parts of the album that don't completely work, which is an unfortunately large chunk of it.

With all that being said, Ware can't really be criticised for this move toward more mainstream sounds as the record doesn't feel like an intentional act of "selling out." Everything that made her wonderful in the beginning is still here, especially her incredible vocals which only seem to have improved since we last heard from her. Maybe if this album doesn't sound right, the blame is on the listeners, especially those who always knew how special she is.

Maybe Jessie Ware is ready for the big time, but we're not ready to let her go just yet.

Universal Island / PMR