Through all its sultry electronica, the true jewel of Jessie Ware’s stunning debut, Devotion, might be “Sweet Talk”. It’s a peculiarity because of how it sounds transcribed from another era, somewhere between Prince at his most deceptively simplistic and Whitney Houston at her most playful. Moreover, it’s instantly enjoyable because of its sense of balance. Unrequited desire is the fulcrum, but there’s the idyllic vision of it mixed with some bite to prevent it from floating into naivety. There are the cloudy atmospherics of that keyboard melody, the neon-lit shimmy of the guitar lick, and Ware’s frankness: “And if I keep slipping in, just keep up with the talking.” Like the rest of Devotion, it’s entranced in its own desires while giving the listener enough space to join in the hypnotism.
Her followup LP, Tough Love, is more “Sweet Talk” than “Running” in its pop traditionalism. However, what prevents its climaxing moments from sticking like any of Devotion is how it mistakes the empathetic-by-nature theme of unrequited love as the core factor of its charm. Rather, it’s the commonality of that feeling that makes it harder to portray compellingly. Tough Love packages it too neatly. The amicability of the hooks starts to wear thin by the time the odd disco/synthpop of “Want Your Feeling” rolls around.
A common criticism of this decade’s R&B and soul simply addresses chops: These artists just don’t sing like they used to. Great music isn’t entirely a talent show; you gotta work with what you got. Ware’s voice has always been more about charisma than technical ability, but she ended up striking gold when she linked up with Dave Okumu, who had a hand in nearly every track on Devotion. It was symbiosis: Okumu’s quiet-storm glitz smoothed out whatever vocal shortcoming or lyrical verboseness there was, while Ware’s maximal use of what she has — switching between cooing and autonomy — further elevated the sonic backdrop. The duo strikes gold again with “Sweetest Song”. The flange-riddled guitar and the submerged percussion emanate darkness that eventually breaks when the hook, a cocktail of groove and wistful repetition, comes along.
Okumu only contributes to one other track on Tough Love, the similarly capricious “Cruel”. Japanese duo BenZel takes over main production duties on five tracks. It’s a mixed bag mostly because a majority of the songs step back, forcing Ware to become a sort of pop catharsis. Her voice works best in conflict, and thus, the arrangements feel somewhat of a mismatch, even with R&B prince crooner Miguel lending his hand. It’s why choruses like the one in “You & I (Forever)” fall flat (weak metaphors like “Sometimes you gotta push to start/ And then we’re gonna go until the wheels fall off” don’t do much good either). It also hurts “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe”, which moves from ponderous waltz to sluggish predictability.
BenZel does manage to get it right with the lead-off title track. Drenched in a rainy night’s gleam, “Tough Love” once again pulls out the side of Ware that’s both tender and heartbreakingly honest. “I dream in all your clouds of glory, it’s true/ So you wanna be a man about it, do you have to?” she sings in a fragility that coyly seethes her gender critique. Again: balance.
That’s not to say that Ware ought to take aim at societal constructs or do a tightrope act with every album. But with Tough Love, it appears she’s at her best when she’s walking a line. Devotion mellifluously fills the space between innocent playfulness and bare desire. Tough Love relies more on gravitas, allowing more space for overly serious numbers like the Emile Haynie-produced “Pieces”. Sometimes sweetness works better.
Essential Tracks: “Tough Love”, “Sweetest Song”, and “Cruel”