opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >
Good things almost always result when an artist knows her strengths. On “Tough Love,” the opener, title track, and leadoff single from British crossover darling Jessie Ware’s hotly anticipated sophomore album, everything is so fully, completely, perfectly in its right place, it’s all but guaranteed to send a chill up the spine of anyone who loved her debut Devotion in times of personal trouble. Ware’s breakout moment came as a guest vocalist for SBTRKT, and ever since then she has capitalized on the emotional register of last decade’s U.K. bass boom – music ostensibly made for dancing and partying that encapsulated whole worlds of loneliness, alienation, longing, and pent-up rage. True, Katy B – with whom Ware sang on last year’s knockout single “Aaliyah” – brought first-wave dubstep’s gloomy, subterranean patter to the masses first, but even her rapturously greeted debut LP Katy On A Mission could be caught red-handed spiking her dubstep with chart-friendly sugar. Starting with those SBTRKT songs, Ware was the first singer I’d ever heard who understood that the music surrounding her was far more about restraint than it was about release; who grasped that most of its movement was felt rather than heard, since it occurred at the deepest edge of normal human auditory capability.
The music on Devotion wasn’t a proper entry into any blog-approved bass subgenre, but it was suffused with the spirit of the stuff, and that spirit was, necessarily, subdued and somber. When Beyoncé released her self-titled album last December – also a record that tread the cutting edge of contemporary low-end-heavy dance music – it only seemed to hammer home the point that “brostep” already made all too clear: Americans seem to be fundamentally unable to understand these sounds. Beyoncé must, of course, be Beyoncé, which means being loud and forceful even when she appears mannered or sultry or downcast. That’s an approach more or less basically incompatible with the finer points of the major dimensions of formerly-underground British dance music today, which is why even my Beyoncé-adoring ears can unmistakably hear Beyoncé making a business decision to “get hip” rather than an organic one to hire Boots as her producer because she just, y’know, dug his tracks. Ware’s whole artistic persona, on the other hand, is founded on the belief that volume and drama aren’t necessary elements of affecting pop music, and that most romantic emotion (the only kind Ware sings about) occurs on humbler scale because most humans are humbler types than Beyoncé. Changes in relationship dynamics are rarely narrative pivots so much as subliminally detectable shifts, like a vibration emanating from a subwoofer. Ware’s got one hell of a voice, which is important; you have to know she’s not using it for her mild intonation to seem deliberate and therefore meaningful. When she tiptoes her way through the Devotion highlight “110%,” her performance is so fleet, light, and unobtrusive that an inattentive listener might miss that “110%” is one of the most devastating pop songs in recent years.
The only better word to describe Ware’s subject matter than Devotion – with its usual one-sidedness, its equal opportunity for warm, loving affection and unhealthy, overwhelming attachment – is probably Tough Love. From the titles alone, one might surmise that here, surely, is an artist who knows her strengths. And as “Tough Love” unfolds, that feels true. It’s not just a great song performed by Jessie Ware, it’s a Great Jessie Ware Song. Its elegant monochrome, simple architecture fleshed out with a constantly evolving range of sonic details, shudders of deep bass currents that never take center stage, a pre-chorus that doubles down on the beat only to give way to a chorus so determined to raise rather than release tension that it’s barely a chorus at all, a story of romance destroyed by irreconcilable differences, a smear of quasi-melodic electronic whirring that effaces and washes out Ware’s plain vocal take in the last minute – it’d already be as perfectly “Jessie Ware” as a song could be even without the Most Jessie Ware Lyric Ever, the ambiguously ambivalent final-act clincher, “You’ll have me crying out, crying out for more.” Actually, even better is the line, “Your heart becomes a million little pieces.” There’s something so fucking crushing about that doggedly unhistrionic substitution of “becomes” for something more obvious like “breaks” – as though she’s not willing to assign the kind of blame that “breaks” implies, or as though she’s stunned, confused, doesn’t understand how it was, precisely, that her life came to be destroyed. “That’s called tough love,” and Jessie Ware is its great contemporary telegrapher.
So yes, Ware clearly knows her strengths. Tough Love, however, does not cleave so closely to them as that first song would suggest. Say your debut record turns out to be an expected critical smash and an unexpected, if modest, commercial success – your sophomore record, like so many “second” works (in any artistic medium), has sizable stakes to go with its indulgent price tag. It has something to prove, namely, that you can work the same magic again without literally doing the same thing again. Tough Love cannot, by nature, be a reprise of Devotion, and that’s good, because I’d be tearing it apart right now for redundancy, but this puts Ware in one of the music industry’s oldest tight corners. For Tough Love, she’s gone bigger and bolder overall, because she has to. That’s What You Do At This Point In Your Career. She doesn’t ditch Dave Okumu, Julio Bashmore, or Tom Hull – all three of whom co-wrote and co-produced much of Devotion – which is quite kind of her, but she does have them step aside to make more space in the studio: teenaged Japanese electronic duo BenZel produced most of Tough Love, and new co-writers include Simian Mobile Disco’s James Ford, perpetual wet British blanket Ed Sheeran, rapper Benny Blanco, and R&B underdogs like Miguel and Devonté Hynes of Blood Orange (Sky Ferreira, Solange), but it’s telling that there are others, indeed, too many new faces to list. Ware may know her strong points, but does everyone with a hand or two in Tough Love’s creation know them, too? Devotion was cohesive and sounded custom-built for Ware; the intrinsically hodgepodge Tough Love sounds custom-built for a serious run at chart success. Those two things are, of course, not the same.
“Tough Love” was produced by BenZel, and it’s the only thing time they get Ware right. The Miguel-penned “You & I (Forever)” and Sheeran-penned “Say You Love Me” sort of pass as attempt to broaden Ware’s palette of sonic trappings – where Sheeran goeth, lilting acoustic guitar doth follow – but that’s mostly a front; these are Ware’s first real shots at big, Adele-status R&B anthems. Instead of giving Ware spatially vivid material her voice can inhabit, though, they give her what songwriting and production teams give would-be pop stars everyday, which is music to sing over. “You & I” sounds just fine with her vocals, but it’s so heavily multi-tracked and so shallowly constructed, I think it would probably sound just fine with my vocals, too. “Say You Love Me” is better, because Ware sounds like she’s having a great time; it’s her most visceral, muscular performance ever (check the way she rips the word “you” apart at 1:35 without drawing it out), and just because Ware’s work usually succeeds by working directly against this sort of singing doesn’t preclude its efficacy here. “Say You Love Me” is a supremely boring piece of music, complete with a tearjerking backing choir (uh oh) that stops by to help Ware hit those big notes in the final third – help she doesn’t even need, as the excellent Bashmore-produced Side B belter “Keep On Lying” demonstrates amply.
And so it goes. When BenZel is in charge, things rarely turn out well: Ware sings the dreadful Blanco collaboration “Champagne Kisses” like she would any other song, which is to say, with a modest intensity, and then BenZel drenches the whole thing in gaudy strings that undermine Ware’s every effort at subtlety. Of the new collaborators, only Hynes makes a favorable impression, which makes sense because his own work as Blood Orange and as a producer is intimately aligned with Ware’s overall aesthetic: “Everything Is Embarrassing” and all of Solange’s True could easily have worked as Ware songs, and his dizzy Tough Love track “Want Your Feeling” does an even better job of brightening up Ware’s usual greyscale sound for the dancefloor than Disclosure did on their remix of “Running.” But beyond that…well, there are some really excellent songs on Tough Love. The strings on “Cruel” veer between disco-y glissandos and tremulous agitation as the song itself leans tantalizingly to and then away from the gravitational pull of deep house. "Desire" is a lush, monumental closer that perfectly counterbalances the opener and leaves the listener entranced, and the gorgeous “Sweetest Song” is one of the best tracks with Ware’s name on it to date. Those three songs just happen to be Tough Love’s only tracks cut with key Devotion players Okumu and Hull, and although they do indeed sound much like Devotion, there’s no gainsaying the fact that they’re also, simply put, much better than most of the material on the new record. Ware’s situation here was not impossible; as that “Running” remix proved, there are fresh sonic avenues that could take this singer directly to a wider audience without losing the qualities that make her work so singular, so alluring, and so elusive. However, she hasn’t taken any of those, and the alternatives selected prove thoroughly lackluster despite Ware's consistently wonderful vocal work. I guess that’s tough love.