On Tough Love, Jessie Ware glances to adult contemporary pop - without cliche
2014 may be the year alt-R&B finally breaks, but there's nothing especially alternative about Jessie Ware. In another decade, a voice like hers – soothing, almost oedipally comforting – might have slotted into one of any number of molds, from label-constructed Dido balladeer to Massive Attack vocalist for hire. But her debut album, 2012's Devotion, was a triumph of both emotional restraint and good taste. 80s quiet storm soul with the backbone of millennial British dance, Jessie Ware could have comfortably stayed in her pop-R&B crossover lane forever. Tough Love finds her gesturing ever so slightly to the masses, blurring the lines between indie-hyped R&B and deathless soft-rock balladry. Sure, it's a cliché, but romantic love, the most universal of subjects, deserves the grandest of audiences.
There's a vast difference between merely evoking intimacy, and truly exposed, heart-in-hand emotion. For someone who's built her whole career around pillowy synths and vocal reverb, it's startling to hear the veil pulled back even further. “Tough Love” opens the album by adding a pleading, piercing falsetto to Ware's emotional range, but it's the plain, unadorned “Say You Love Me”, an Ed Sheeran cowrite, that's the biggest departure. You could imagine any self-conscious singer attempting its melodic leaps - probably on The X Factor with a key change and gospel choir – but her restraint makes the whispers and emotional climaxes equally showstopping. In Jessie Ware's hands, the ballad is an art form with nearly infinite variations - but it's only through the most everyday, traditional kind that you realise just how exceptional a talent you're dealing with.
Tough Love's biggest shift isn't sonic, it's structural – away from Devotion's beat-driven, circular hooks, and towards more traditional verse-chorus songs. Ware's reliance on her overpoweringly smooth aesthetic was never a crutch, but scrubbed away ever so slightly, her voice and lyrics are all the more exposed. Devotion's dance flourishes masked its more underwritten tracks in a way the likes of Dev Hynes' yacht rock-disco pastiche “Want Your Feeling” can't. But then again, her music's always been about uncertainties. Take “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe”, as noncommittal as song titles get – which feels like the nervous minutes before a drunk dial, the way indifference and repressed, smouldering lust can look the same from the outside. The more you get to know her, the less the sentimentality of the surface matters.
Tough Love has an odd dilemma; in no one else's world is risking adult contemporary blandness a genuinely brave artistic move. It's “mainstream“ not as commercial pandering, but as an act of emotional generosity, withholding nothing from the listener, whoever they may be. Jessie Ware belongs with the Adeles and Sam Smiths of the world; that she's approaching them without stooping to milquetoast piano balladry or grandiose choral wailing is a miracle. Her music avoids every sentimental cliché you can think of, except the one that's most out of place in 2014: the idea that the demure is sexier, that desire is more powerful than satiation. Modern production aside, this is as righteously conservative as pop gets. It's sincere in every way, except maybe that softly ironic title: Tough Love. Jessie Ware makes it sound like the gentlest thing in the world. Her muse sounds like love itself.