Release Date: Oct 21, 2014
Record label: Interscope
Genre(s): Pop, R&B, Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Adult Contemporary R&B
In 2012, English singer-songwriter Jessie Ware released Devotion, providing one of the year’s greatest debut albums and one of the pop-sphere’s most singular works in recent memory. Her sweeping, soulful voice gave immense character to an impressive collection of modern R&B ballads that were less cheesy radio sing-alongs and more lonely, late-night, contemplative love anthems. Ware settled into this decade’s R&B resurgence with confidence and a singular voice that could topple top 40 radio and independent music blogs in one fell swoop, crashing into a culture that welcomed her talent with open arms and pricked ears.
No artist streamlines this new wave of R&B quite as nicely as London vocalist Jessie Ware. Earning her cred singing guest vocals for post-dubstep producer SBTRKT, Ware struck gold on her own in 2012 with her Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, Devotion.As a rookie she was a self-proclaimed "nervous wreck," but on her sophomore album, Tough Love, Ware quickly demonstrates that in just two years she has gained extraordinary confidence. Tough Love doesn't exactly try to reinvent her sound but continues what Ware started with Devotion: an expertly produced, radio-friendly mix of soul and pop.Ware has made no secret of the help she received in making Tough Love and she chose her collaborators well.
From singing backing vocals for Jack Peñate at live shows to releasing her critically-acclaimed and Mercury Prize-nominated debut album, Jessie Ware’s rise over the past few years has been impressive to say the least. In fact, the plaudits for 2012’s Devotion were such that the 29-year-old ended up with nominations in the British Breakthrough and British Female categories at the 2013 BRIT Awards. The record – produced by The Invisible’s Dave Okumu – was a breath of fresh air compared to the generic pop being produced at the time, with Ware’s soulful and sophisticated sound far more interesting than fellow BRIT Award nominees Emeli Sandé and Rita Ora.
I was at a festival, this past summer, that had one of the biggest names in British indie as the main headliners - namely, Foals - and Disclosure topping the bill across the site on the second stage. The relative sizes of the crowds said it all; Disclosure, and their ilk, are now representative of the most exciting current movement in British pop music, acts who are simultaneously critically hailed and commercially viable. It’s that club-referencing, dance-oriented sound that’s ticking more boxes than any other scene at the minute.
Jessie Ware casts a spell that makes you feel gut-wrenchingly, obsessively and agonisingly in love. That best-forgotten disaster of a relationship suddenly becomes beautifully poetic. That ex you thought you were over comes shimmying back into your consciousness. But Ware is no Drake. There is a ….
There's nothing flashy about Tough Love, Jessie Ware's follow-up to her enticingly reserved debut. In some ways, the album is even more remote than Devotion, full of songs that, while flickering with warmth and emotion, never shed their veneer of chilly distance. All this is anchored by Ware's increasingly commanding presence, which the music recedes to accommodate, her resonant voice filling out the broad spaces between delicate piano lines and minimal electronic flourishes throughout.
Jessie Ware knows exactly what she is doing. Two years ago the British singer/songwriter released Devotion, a superb debut that critics pretty much unanimously agreed was a triumph in pop sophistication. With favorable reviews, of course, followed relative success in the alternative music sphere—the disc debuted at No. 5 on the UK albums chart, garnered a Mercury Prize nomination and made it on more than a handful of year-end lists—but the South Londoner never reached the kind of mainstream influence of which many of us, including Katy Perry, thought her capable.
On Jessie Ware’s second album, Tough Love, there’s a deeply weird song that could potentially infiltrate the mainstream—not in spite of its sonic alien quality, but because of it. “Keep On Lying” sounds like a gospel choir singing atop a chintzy keyboard stuck on the "bossa nova" setting, yet it's easy to picture "So You Think You Can Dance" hopefuls popping-and-locking to it. This delicate balance is lightning-bolt brilliance that may not even strike once in a career for most artists, but Jessie Ware has made the balance appear effortless several times already in her young career, a talented pop vocalist who projects an interesting taste in music and a canny know-how in regards to the up-and-coming electronic producers she chooses to work with.
Much has changed for Jessie Ware since 2012’s ‘Devotion’. Then she was a rookie singer with only a handful of UK bass collaborations to her name. Now she’s a Brit and Mercury-nominated diva looking to cement her place in the mainstream. ‘Tough Love’ has its eyes locked on Adele’s crown, with the Ed Sheeran-penned ‘Say You Love Me’ a slightly too obvious stab at the big time.
Jessie Ware wants to talk about love, but she's not sugarcoating how difficult it can be. "I had to shatter to pieces/It made me reveal myself," the recently married London singer admits on "Pieces," an emotive highlight of her second album. But for all its vulnerability, Tough Love is tenacious, too, brimming with R&B grooves and a whole lot of soul.
Artists like Jessie Ware are rare souls. Too textured for pop, too hard-hitting for soul, yet possessing just the right amount of vocal huskiness for an audience that has grown accustomed to the growls of Amy Winehouse and Adele. Indeed, there is a captivating quality to the mix of maturity and featheriness in Ware’s voice, a quality that made her debut album Devotion a standout and earned her a Mercury Prize nomination, despite having no commercially successful singles.
Judging by the uneven reactions to the first singles from Jessie Ware's second album, I get the feeling that people expect her to be everything at once. For some, she's a darling of tasteful R&B, with music more likely to soundtrack a black-tie ball than a club. For others, she's the UK's sultry disco queen, subtle where others are brash. For the labels, she's a talented, mature singer capable of making smart pop anthems.
None of the singles from Devotion, Jessie Ware's debut, cracked the U.K. Top 40, but the album peaked at number five and was nominated for the 2012 Mercury Prize. Nominations for several MOBO and BRIT awards further substantiated the singer and songwriter's break out status. By the time follow-up Tough Love was released in 2014, the album had already placed two singles in the Top 40.
“You have me crying out, crying out for more,” Jessie Ware murmurs on this album’s title track, recalling Sade’s 1984 hit Your Love is King, which pivoted on the breathy refrain: “I’m crying out for more.” Like Sade, Ware is a sensualist, gliding through her second album with a boneless elegance that screams “premium product”. Though gifted with a power-alto that could drill through steel, her voice is a filmy caress here, brushing past in a deceptively insubstantial way. Tough Love as a whole is even more understated than her Mercury-nominated debut – the electronics more muted, and Ware’s delivery more redolent of midnight-hour isolation.
Classy soul-pop balances on a knife edge. Land a Hungarian goose down feather on it the wrong way and it becomes beige, insipid fare that piles cliche on formula as someone in a big white shirt looks pensively out of a loft window. South Londoner Jessie Ware is wearing a big white shirt on the cover of her second album, Tough Love. She is looking pensively out of a loft window.
Through all its sultry electronica, the true jewel of Jessie Ware’s stunning debut, Devotion, might be “Sweet Talk”. It’s a peculiarity because of how it sounds transcribed from another era, somewhere between Prince at his most deceptively simplistic and Whitney Houston at her most playful. Moreover, it’s instantly enjoyable because of its sense of balance.
Jessie Ware proudly wears her influences—Sade, Whitney Houston, Prince, and any number of ’80s and ’90s R&B belters—on her sleeve. But her many strengths as a songwriter and singer outweigh any possible charges of imitation, and her willingness to apply subtlety, make unexpected choices, and take risks are what make Ware such a unique presence. That risk-taking is what makes Tough Love a more than worthy follow-up to Ware’s excellent 2012 debut, Devotion.
Talking to the Globe in early 2013, Jessie Ware let on that her debut album from the previous year was merely the essence of what she can do: “Weirdly, I’ve always been quite a big singer,” she said. Now it’s clear she wasn’t kidding. Where “Devotion” was an intoxicating introduction to the British singer, who brings a light touch to her skeletal take on R&B and soul, her sophomore album puts some meat on those bones.