Jessie Ware knows exactly what she is doing.
Two years ago the British singer/songwriter released Devotion, a superb debut that critics pretty much unanimously agreed was a triumph in pop sophistication. With favorable reviews, of course, followed relative success in the alternative music sphere—the disc debuted at No. 5 on the UK albums chart, garnered a Mercury Prize nomination and made it on more than a handful of year-end lists—but the South Londoner never reached the kind of mainstream influence of which many of us, including Katy Perry, thought her capable. Had U.S. radio stations just given “Wildest Moments” even a little bit of airplay, she might well have followed the trajectories of two other talented female imports who managed to top the charts in recent years, despite not sounding like the traditional EDM pop of the day.
First there was Adele. Then came Lorde. Could JWare be next? Judging from her sophomore album, it’s safe to say that she hasn’t given up on trying.
With alternative music blogs already covering her every song tease and B-side release, Tough Love now fully arms Ware with the goods to crossover to the big leagues. Packaging the smart, soulful pop that made Devotion so great with a handful of catchy choruses that are just waiting to get stuck in millions of heads, she’s put herself in position to attract mainstream listeners who, more than ever, love feeling like they’re not mainstream.
Now, before you go assuming that Tough Love is a contrived attempt made solely to shoot Ware off into the fame that is well within her grasp, hold on a second. It’s not. As a whole, the album is actually not so different from its predecessor. Like Devotion, it’s full of consistently subtle pop music that favors groove over rave. With their atmospheric swagger, both “Sweetest Song” and “Desire” sound like they could have been lifted right from Ware’s debut. Then there’s the album’s sleek title track, which may be her most restrained song yet. Even the more conventionally upbeat songs like “You & I (Forever)” and “Cruel” maintain the deliberate sonic nonchalance that has begun to define Ware’s persona.
But what separates the two albums more than their beats or synths are the melodies that hold them together. Where Devotion contained only three or four songs with big, traditional choruses, Tough Love is built on them. What “Pieces” and “Champagne Kisses” lack in lyrical originality, they nearly make up for in melodic potency. And the same is true for many of the songs on the album. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the second single.
Co-written with Ed Sheeran, “Say You Love Me” serves as a sort of model for what Ware is doing with Tough Love, even if the song’s acoustic backdrop doesn’t match the polished electronic feel of the rest of the album. The song is catchy—her most accessible yet—but not overly indulgent. It shows off her impressive pipes but doesn’t beg for an ovation. It’s a collaboration with a hot name in the music industry but doesn’t carry the weight of a Max Martin or a Rick Rubin. In other words: it’s big, but it could have been much bigger. Even when the gospel choir shows up for a dramatic final chorus, their voices are paired with nothing but a sparse clapping beat and Ware’s own improvisational soprano. It might not exactly be considered highbrow art, but it, at the very least, shows that Ware hasn’t totally forgotten the power of restraint.