Review Summary: love stinks, yeah yeah
Predictably, Jessie Ware concludes Devotion
by shying away. “Offer me something inside,” she says. “A place to go, a place to hide.” She’s been doing this all record, singing the shit
out of gorgeous pop songs without reveling in them, avoiding cheesy goo as if it were a privilege she doesn’t think she’s earned. Devotion
’s got no glitz, no strings buoying filler (not that there is any), no lyrics delivered with what one might describe as “moxie.” It’s stark, comprised of little more than Ware’s voice filtered through a little bit of reverb and some understated accompaniment, allowing Ware to dictate the personality of her record.
isn’t confident. I mean, it is, in how remarkably assured Ware sounds baring what she chooses to and in how it allows the artist to take the focus she deserves, but what I mean is that Devotion
’s personality isn’t confident. It’s many other things--at different times warm, cold, sexy, and sad--but above all else, it’s loving. It loves in a way that latches on too tightly and endures in the face of consistent abuse, a way that breaks its protagonist down to the point of admitting “I know I’m the weak one,” a way where the fear of being alone trumps the familiarity of hurt. It is
, ya dig?
But the magic of Devotion
is how it flips that script on us. All that tough stuff gets coated in R&B chocolate--hooks that hit the ear like a breath, beats that sound better with the lights off, harmonies gunning for your loins--so it goes down smooth. And at the center of it all is Ware, pining, aching
in little phrases with messes of implications behind them. “Still Love Me” is the closest the album gets to sounding cocky, decked with a hypnotizing strut and a repeated mantra of “If I make myself understood, will you treat me like you know you should?” The whole thing sounds like pretty standard girl-power stuff until you pay attention to the verses and find Ware bewildered that someone would be interested in her. “Why’d you want me?” she asks. “Why’d you stay so close? You’re still not leaving? Was I enough?” Through this lens, the “will you treat me like you know you should?” cliché gets undermined as Ware gets cast as a pop star who believes she deserves worse
than what she has, and rather than being grateful, she’s simply confused. What sounds self-assured is actually an expression of a conflicted sense of self-worth.
This level of subtlety is something that doesn’t click until the tenth or so listen and could just as easily go by misunderstood and the album wouldn't be worse for it, but it’s all over Devotion
. On “Sweet Talk,” a Grammy contender for pop song of the year in my happy brain-world where the Grammys aren’t a total crock of shi
t, the “sweet talk” in question is sung about like it is of the sexy variety but is actually the apologies from an emotionally devastating lover. Elsewhere, the lyric “feel free to touch me” has never sounded so grody as it does on “110%,” where a club beat gives the idea that Ware should
mean it, but the breathy emptiness to her voice and the guy sneakily chanting “carving my initials on your forehead” in the background colors it icky. This juxtaposition--the seeming lack of confidence against the hints of pop’s regular boastful excess--makes Devotion
so addictively intriguing. How strange it is to hear a pop singer sound so unsure, so self aware, and how wonderful too; it’s not often you hear a singer express a character as bleak as Ware does here without intentionally playing the mope.
I don’t think it’s particularly bold to say that the extent to which albums like this--your Born To Die
s, your 21
s, solo vocal, mostly-love-songs pop records--click is in part related to the believability of the performer. Ware isn’t the only female pop star that’s used self-deprecation to invite listeners to fall for her, obviously, but the way she avoids melodrama makes her feel tangible in a way that the gloss of an Adele or the construction of a Lana Del Rey can’t quite achieve. Ware is more intimate, the “private pop star” she wants to be, the musical equivalent of “that feel when…” She fidgets in front of a camera and admits to playing pop-star dress-up in her “Wildest Moments” video (“Wildest Moments,” by the by, being my Grammy pick for Record of the Year). On the stunning and satisfying closer “Something Inside,” when she offers not-without-a-certain-air-of-acceptance “let me run, let me feel like someone,” it feels real even though the line itself is vague. Ware is close enough to her audience’s level that filling in the vast space behind that lyric with personal experience doesn’t feel cheap. The performance of her conflicted character, the way she flippantly drops little bombshells in pretty packaging rather than belting them over sappy piano ballads, makes it personal in a way that betrays it means something to her, which is enough to make it mean something to us.
And what’s more is that it will mean something different for everyone; Devotion
is an album anyone can enjoy, but not necessarily in a shared way, not in the kitsch way where you turn on, say, Lady Gaga and know exactly how you as a person are supposed to enjoy it. Devotion
does something remarkable in making the universal--love, heartbreak, and yes, devotion--feel specific, simply because Jessie Ware doesn’t sound like she’s lying
. Kind of weird that that feels special, doesn’t it?