Jessie Ware is through being cool. “Say You Love Me,” the best song on her sophomore album Tough Love, has a gospel choir and an Ed Sheeran co-writing credit and a bridge that sounds like the song from Once that won the Oscar. It is a song that fully exists in Sam Smith territory. It’s grand and hammy and sweeping. It’s also an incredible song, a warm and instinctive plea to keep a relationship from falling into inertia death. Ware sings the fucking hell out of it. That part on the second verse where she goes from coo to sob to accusation to sigh in the space of a single line — “Want to feel buuuurn-iiiing flaaaame when you say my name” — absolutely reduces me to rubble. It takes every move from the big, gooey, sweeping pop-ballad playbook and executes it perfectly, hitting all your feeling-buttons with masterly ease. And if a song like “Say You Love Me” can break through to the greater pop-cultural consciousness — don’t rule it out — I could see it becoming something like Adele’s “Someone Like You,” a song that can play over supermarket speakers and ambush you, leaving you misty-eyed in the cereal aisle.
Ware wasn’t always shooting for the cereal aisle. Devotion, the 2012 album that introduced her, was sparse and restrained and archtectural. Ware was dealing with big feelings but doing it in quiet ways. Ware had gotten her start as a backup singer, and she’d made a name for herself singing on club-pop songs, so she knew how to hold back and to negotiate futuristic bass-noises. But she was also an old-school heart-on-sleeve blue-eyed soul singer, in the distinctly British Dusty Springfield mode. And the songs on Devotion could’ve been massive, sweeping ballads. But Ware and her producers had basically taken those big old ballads apart and put them back together, leaving out the swooping strings and last-chorus key-changes, swapping in all these gleaming new parts. The album never demanded attention, but it found all these subtle ways to slip into your bloodstream, and it remains one of the loveliest, most durable debut albums I’ve heard in recent years.
Where Devotion was sharp and sophisticated, Tough Love is big and juicy and unapologetic. There are still bits of dance music on the album, but the echoes are growing more and more distant. And when they do appear, they’re in the most populist form imaginable, like the lush and rippling disco of “Want Your Feeling.” (Dev Hynes co-wrote that one, and it’s rare, and great, to hear his considerable melodic gifts used in service of something without the tiniest bit of Ambien haze to it.) For most of the album, there’s a sort of old-school showmanship at work. “Pieces” has a string section worthy of a James Bond opening-credits montage. The echoing synth effects on “Sweetest Song” don’t even try to hide its late-’80s adult-contempo essence; it’s a song that could appear on a Sade album without disrupting that painstakingly crafted mood. “Desire” could be a wedding song. This time around, Ware worked with a murderer’s row of pop-music professionals — Miguel, Sheeran, Arctic Monkeys producer James Ford, Lana Del Rey collaborator Emile Haynie, the future-pop production duo BenZel. And with them, she’s made something built to alienate precisely nobody. (Relatively sparse and tingly tracks like “Share It All” and “12,” great as they are, did not make the album proper.) She’s no longer playing around with pop-music tropes, subverting them or recasting them. She’s doing them straight-up, pushing no boundaries. But that down-the-middle approach hasn’t dimmed the power of these songs, or of her voice.
If I had to pick between Ware’s albums, I’d probably go with Devotion, an album that finds subtler, sneakier ways to destroy. But I don’t have to pick. And Tough Love is still a stunner, an example of how hard this soft-pop can kick you in the gut when it’s done just right. The songs are uniformly strong, but a lot of the power comes down to Ware’s voice. Ware still has that all-important restraint. She never vamps or whoops or attempts to church things up. Even on her biggest moments, she’s serving the song, not trying to overwhelm it. And so even when she launches into a resistance-is-futile chorus like the one on “You & I Forever,” that voice stays downcast and conversational. And on something like the aqueous, Prince-informed, Miguel-assisted “Kind Of… Sometimes… Maybe,” that unforced, almost tentative delivery is key. If you can pull off a moment like that song’s halting, murmured, flirtatious hook, then who needs cool?
Tough Love is out now on Friends Keep Secrets/Interscope.
Other albums of note out today:
• Scott Walker & SunnO)))’s dense experimental team-up Soused.
• Nude Beach’s sparkling, joyous power-pop double album 77.
• T.I.’s kingly comeback bid Paperwork.
• Weyes Blood’s soft, swirling The Innocents.
• Thurston Moore’s The Best Day, his first solo album with his new backing band.
• Aretha Franklin’s covers collection Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics.
• Mark Lanegan Band’s darkly hypnotic Phantom Radio.
• Kiesza’s glittering dance-pop debut Sound Of A Woman.
• Oozing Wound’s old-school thrash crusher Earth Suck.
• Pontiak/Guardian Alien/Beach House side project Heat Leisure’s psychedelic jam session III & IV.
• Dope Body’s loud, ugly Lifer.
• Young Statues’ intense, recorded-live sophomore effort The Flatlands Are Your Friend.
• Cold War Kids’ dependably scraggly Hold My Home.
• Neil Diamond’s richly orchestrated, all-originals collection Melody Road.
• FF’s fast, fuzzed-out debut Lord.
• Tiger Village’s homemade electronic trip V.
• Wayne Szalinski’s noir-informed shamble-pop debut Black Mirror.
• Modern Vices’ swaggering self-titled garage rocker.
• Happy Diving’s energetically fuzzed-out Big World.
• Triathalon’s surfy, decaying debut Lo-Tide.
• Primus’ Willy Wonka tribute Primus & The Chocolate Factory With The Fungi Ensemble.
• The Body and Sandworm’s split LP.
• The Arthur Russell tribute compilation Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell.
• JEFF The Brotherhood’s Dig The Classics EP.
• Etnik’s Unclassified EP.
• Roomrunner’s Separate EP.
• William Arcane’s Reckless EP.