I spent something like five seasons recapping American Idol, so I feel like I can tell you some things about backup singers. Along with church wailers and vocal instructors and major-label refugees and yarly bar-rock frontmen, backup singers are fixtures on shows like Idol, and they almost never work out. Obviously, they can sing the lights out; you don’t get to make your living singing if you can’t do that. And you can imagine how they feel: Standing off to the side of the stage, supplying needed ahhs and echos while someone much more famous and better-paid soaks up all the attention. But when they get their shot on shows like these, they often come off tentative and halting, not sure what to do with an entire stage once they’ve finally got the run of it. Or they go the other way, busting out big Broadway smiles and ridiculous dance moves; it’s pretty embarrassing to watch when that happens. Jessie Ware is a former backing singer, and I don’t know how she’d do on a show like Idol. But on her debut album Devotion, I like to imagine that she’s using her backup-singer past as a sort of advantage, holding back when it’s necessary and refusing to overcompensate and go all bazooka-voice. Instead, she’s a calm and tremulous presence, a conversational singer in that listening to her sounds like having a conversation with someone shy who doesn’t talk much but who deeply, sincerely means everything she says. She’s made a soul album that sinks gradually into your brain rather than strutting out and demanding your attention. And it’s great.
Another thing about Jessie Ware: She got her name into circulation by singing on dance songs, populist post-dubstep bangers from people like SBTRKT and Joker. That means she knows how to handle bass-wobbles and digital whumps. She’s made a straight-up soul album, not any kind of dance-fusion thing, but that background is key in understanding Devotion. Her team of producers — Dave Okumu, Julio Bashmore, Kid Harpoon — have varying levels of dance-music background. They know that’s not what they’re making here, but they know it’s safe to add the textures and sounds of the stuff, especially its lusher edges, without necessarily pushing the tempos. And so what we have here is a comfort-food soul album, the sort of thing that fills up your heart when you’re not feeling your best, but one that sways and glides with full glossy cosmopolitan confidence.
This is the paragraph where I’m going to list a bunch of other artists’ names, since that’s what we music critics do when we’re having a tough time describing stuff. In this Pitchfork interview, Ware rattles off a fairly fascinating list of influences, one that includes schmaltzy but supremely instinctive ballad-singers like Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston as well as elegantly dazed internet-favorite types like Beach House and Clams Casino, and it’s sure possible to imagine the album existing at some heretofore-unexplored point between those vastly different poles. It also sounds great next to Drake or the xx or the Weeknd, artists who make anxiety and desperation and disconnect sound slick and sexy. But what it reminds me of most is some of the first pop music I ever listened to, stuff that was big in London at the very end of the 1980’s. I spent a year there when I was nine, and that’s when I had my big pop-music awakening; a show like Top Of The Pops made following the stuff fun and mathematical, like sports. As it happened, that moment was rich with artists who took cues from the exploding acid-house scene but also from smooth ’70s soul and ’80s quiet storm: Lisa Stansfield, Soul II Soul, even Sade. Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy,” which came a couple of years later, was a direct outgrowth of that stuff, and Ware’s “No To Love,” with its muffled righteousness and its mumbled kinda-raps, is practically a sequel to that one. So Devotion, while not an act of revival by any means, has roots in a sound that resonates deeply for me, and which nobody much else is attempting these days.
But I’d be selling the album short if I made it out to be a sum of its influences. If anything, that list of artists is long and weird enough to give some indication of just how unique a voice Ware is. On the songs here, she’s hushed but determined, willing herself out of heartbreak and doing the hard and shitty work that every great relationship eventually demands. She sounds sad but strong throughout, and the album ebbs and ripples around her in ways that only buoy all that sentiment. This isn’t a Channel Orange situation, an album that rewrites the soul-music rulebook and feels like it’s defining an entirely new universe. It’s an album that does old things, remarkably well, in ways so smart that they feel new. And in its own way, that’s nearly as powerful an achievement.
Devotion is out 8/20 on PMR.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti latest mutant-pop bug-out Mature Themes.
• Yeasayer’s dancey, moonlit Fragrant World.
• Bloc Party’s attempted comeback album Four.
• Four Tet’s excellent new singles collection Pink.
• DOOM and Jneiro Jarel’s JJ DOOM team-up Keys To The Kuffs.
• Teengirl Fantasy’s dizzily catchy dance album Tracer.
• Sleepies’ awesomely rickety and fun punk rock debut Weird Wild World.
• Six Organs Of Admittance’s unexpectedly stoner-rocky Ascent.
• Bill Fay’s comeback album after 40 years away Life Is People.
• The Darkness’s butt-rock return to glory Hot Cakes.
• DJ Khaled’s latest superstar parade Kiss The Ring.
• Matthew E. White’s warm, singer-songwriterly Big Inner.
• Helado Negro and Julianna Barwick’s OMBRE team-up Believe You Me.