Review Summary: Often lovely, though Devotion is better
If there is one thing you can say about Jessie Ware, it is that her lyrics honestly address the multifaceted beast that is love. It pulls, it rejoices, it pleases, it pleads, it doubts, and does a host of other things to us. And with the ridiculously smooth, unassuming but assured production that served as a foil for her ambiguous lyrical musings on her debut album Devotion, it was incredibly easy to fall for her songs. Of course, now that Ware has taken a bold step into the spotlight and recently tied the knot, the obvious questions beg to be asked: What now? Is love still so complicated? Will the songs be just as good the second time around?
Say what you will about her credentials (the fact that she still carries herself with equal parts poise and humility makes her more likable) before she started making Devotion, but Ware has (and still does have) a knack for collaboration, with Julio Bashmore, Dave Okumu, and Kid Harpoon sharing production duties and twiddling the knobs just right to make Ware's songs soar and swoon, culminating in what was 2012's arguably best debut. That collaborative spirit continues, with production duo BenZel handling the majority of these songs, though Ed Sheeran, Dev Hynes, James Ford, Miguel, and previous collaborators assist in various capacities. As for the title track released back in June, it serves to showcase Ware's strengths while refining her sound and allowing her to subtly implement new ideas. With a delicate synth line and echoing percussion that leave plenty of negative space for her vocals to sink into, Ware unleashes a velvety falsetto while confronting her lover: "So you wanna be a man about it? Do you have to?" It's a lovely opener, with Ware admitting "You keep me cryin' out, cryin' out for more...", as her sonic surroundings envelop her voice and then dissipate towards the end. You and I (Forever) is more romantic and sonically dense, making her Ware's vocals seem slightly less warm, though that doesn't keep the chorus from any less catchy: "Don't wanna stop the thought of you and I forever." Pieces finds Ware at her most vulnerable, with insistent strings and 80's percussion accenting Ware's fragile lyrics: "I have to shatter the pieces that made me reveal myself."
However, Ware's distinct sonic template doesn't quite hold up on certain songs. Cruel utilizes strings to almost melodramatic effect that distract from the subtle percussion and the chorus's hook. Sweetest Song starts strong with the lyric "I could hear your song forever", but the instrumental fails to build upon that as the song progresses. Champagne Kisses almost recalls the songs of Steve Winwood circa Higher Love, with a chorus that ultimately grows cheesy with the late introduction of strings in the song.
Elsewhere, Ware's other long list of collaborators afforded her the chance to dabble in other genres and sounds, and she does so with (mostly) effective results. Want Your Feeling rides a deliciously disco-like hook with enough modern sensibility to keep the song from being a stale retread. Her collaboration with Miguel, Kind Of...Sometimes...Maybe, is another highlight, with sparse, stuttering synth lines and percussion that build a slow-burning groove into a wonderful stop-start chorus that matches Ware's indecisiveness in the lyrics. On the flip side, Say You Love Me takes its solid hook and well-timed guitar strums and halfway through decides to introduce a hand-clapping, foot-stomping a cappella chorus that sounds fairly mawkish and jarring compared to earlier songs. Desire is an interesting closer, as even sparser production and Ware's almost meandering hook perhaps provide Ware a new direction for her songs in the future.
Though Ware has (in this author's opinion) has outgrown the Sade comparisons thrust upon her by the music press, the emphasis on collaboration has resulted in a slightly patchy second outing that isn't quite as cohesive and intoxicating as Devotion. However, there's still plenty to enjoy on Tough Love, and it isn't out of the question to continue to expect growth and quality from one of Britain's songstresses fixated on dissecting the finer details of love. Ware no doubt has a list of artists dying to collaborate with her and vice versa, but when it comes to Ware's style of songwriting, less seems to be more.