Review Summary: No matter what she says, it's easy to love Jessie Ware
It’s not my place to be snooping around and making a timeline of Jessie Ware’s relationship with her now-husband Sam Burrows, but here’s what we do know: the pair split for two years before reuniting and marrying in September. A two year gap carries significance too, in that it’s the gap time between her two albums, which can make all the difference in terms of identity, maturity, whatever other synonym for ‘growth’ you can conjure. On her first effort, Devotion
, Ware was fresh out of the dubstep scene, living her self-described dream of being a back-up singer. When she was thrust into the spotlight, she wrote about being overwhelmed and alone; drowning, isolation and abandonment dominated her lyrics. Two years later, a more confident and optimistic Jessie Ware has emerged, armed with a voice even bigger than we might have imagined.
This isn’t to say, however, that she has become just another singer, a manufactured clone of Adele. Much of the beauty of her work comes from its calculated restraint, its sparseness. Devotion
accomplished this by hiding her intermittently- under vocal loops at the end of “Still Love Me,” behind a Big Pun sample on “110%,” with the sing-whispering adapted to minimalist tracks like “Devotion”- but even her whispers could fill a room. Tough Love
has fewer such moments- but they seem brilliant. On “You & I,” there is a brief rest between the verse and chorus. It sounds like she’s ready to blow out the windows with her voice, but she settles into a comfortable middle. It’s a calculated move from someone who knows she can hit the note, but also understands the value of restraint.
When she does take the opportunity to push her voice to its limits, most often the upper extreme, Ware excels. High notes she would have broken off in the past to give a more emphatic, lower register push are now held, her voice perilously close to breaking. Album highlight “Champagne Kisses” finds itself stretched wire-thin by its exemplary falsetto. The song rests on the weight of these notes, daring her to settle into back-up mode, but she refuses. At the end, as a cheeky coda, she blows a kiss through the microphone. She knows how good she is.
Which is a shame, because Tough Love
doesn’t represent her artistic peak. While we explore a series of peaks and valleys- the great successes and dangerous pitfalls of a long-term relationship- it all sounds too bland. The production duo of Benny Blanco and Two-Inch Punch (BenZel), marry pop sensibility with the dubstep scene from which she came- creating a more traditional soundscape which creates a confined, artificial space for Ware to operate in. The bland arrangements give her little room to go all-out, or scale it back. She is forced into making a straightforward pop album- which she is very capable of doing, given her superb talent- but the mood feels wrong. Tough love isn’t supposed to sound so simple.
Credit our siren for making the most of her surroundings. When given the chance to take risks, she does. When a trio of big-name male collaborators come in to work (Miguel, Ed Sheeran and Dev Hynes- whose inclusion on here is questionable, and linked to the expectation that he would take over the world as Lightspeed Champion rather than languish in nu-R&B obscurity as Blood Orange), she pushes them all into the background- where she thought she belonged a couple years ago. Twists like the icy strings and layers of ”Cruel” and the a Capella choir featuring Sheeran on “Say You Love Me” represent the pastiche-style embraced by Devotion
, but is heard too infrequently on the second go-round. It’s no surprise that the songs with creative input beyond BenZel- including the heart-wrenching “Pieces,” produced by frequent Lana Del Rey collaborator Emile Haynie- are generally better.
There’s nothing wrong with an honest, straight-up pop album, but Tough Love
never feels completely honest. Is it a symptom of a rose-colored vision of her current relationship" That feels like the easiest assumption to make. But, more than likely, it’s because of the struggle to balance the need to make an album that simultaneously shows off an incredible voice and deep, complicated emotions. One of them needed to take the backseat so the other could shine brightly. And one thing’s for sure: Jessie Ware’s voice is immaculate.