It’s fitting that Jessie Ware and SBTRKT have both released their second albums at the same time (well, two weeks apart). On the producer’s album, Ware was just an unknown featured vocalist but since then she’s flourished into a fully-fledged artist whose debut album ‘Devotion’ was stunning. Now, with ‘Tough Love’, she’s grown into the popstar she was always meant to be.
At first listen, though, ‘Tough Love’ is merely an extension of her previous work. The opening title track is a brooding take on her retro-futuristic soul, with an 80s feel reminiscent of Cyndi Lauper or Prince, but for the most part the album has the same polished sound we’ve come to expect, unrequited loved at the heart of the lyrics. That’s largely owing to some familiar producers, namely Julio Bashmore and Dave Okumu. Cruel, for instance has a popping beat similar to that from Still Love Me, whilst Sweetest Song has that same intoxicating mix of R&B rhythms, clipped beats and soulful vocals that predominated ‘Devotion’. It’s a style that sounded phenomenal in 2012 and it still sounds fresh two years later.
There are plenty of changes with ‘Tough Love’ though, albeit subtle. Where ‘Devotion’ was production heavy to establish Ware’s sound, this new work places greater emphasis on Ware the singer and songwriter. For starters her vocal is much higher in the mix, more prominent above the deep basslines and pulsing beats. It's also increased in power and range. The whispering falsetto verses and deeper choruses of Tough Love, for instance, came about with Ware “experimenting with [her] voice and having fun with it”. It’s cliché to say, but this is the voice of a much more confident artist – it’s the confidence of a singer who’s realised she can step fully into the limelight and make some money from her talent.
This is the dilemma at the heart of ‘Tough Love’. There’s tension between maintaining her original sound and stretching it towards a mainstream audience, not just the critics. Say You Love Me is the keenest example of this – a collaboration with Ed Sheeran that has the stamp of both artists all over it, with its percussive guitar riffs and soaring gospel finale. It’s the emotional centrepiece of the album that provides Ware with her most chart-friendly hit, though it’s equally missing the raw melancholy of its ‘Devotion’ counterpart Wildest Moments.
Then there’s the fizzing synth pop of Champagne Kisses that has single written all over it – as with Tough Love, it was produced by Benzel (Benny Blanco and Two Inch Punch) who bring a real sense of depth and warmth to their tracks. Want Your Feeling, meanwhile, was produced by the ever-popular Dev Hynes who brings his trademark funk guitars and sense of breezy 80s pop. And remember Miguel, after he jumped on a poor fan? He co-wrote a number of tracks here, his influence heard most obviously on the smooth funk of You & I. Despite the greater number of collaborators, the album remains instantly recognisable as Ware’s work: sleek, polished and understated, just pushed towards the pop end of the spectrum.
Within this, long-term collaborator Bashmore offers the quirkiest track of the album. The Casio keyboard sounds of Keep On Lying are part relaxed bossa nova and part lift music. At the least it provides some experimentation when the rest of the album settles into a familiar groove.
There’s no doubt that ‘Tough Love’ is a sumptuous collection of songs, not forgetting the orchestral drama of Pieces or the minimalist atmosphere of Desire. Yet following up on an album like ‘Devotion’ is always going to be tricky and the comparisons are unavoidable – ‘Tough Love’ lacks the same depth of emotion, the edginess, the sense of cool. What it does do is cement Jessie Ware as an incredibly talented British popstar with enough crossover appeal to satisfy critics and public alike.
* Tough Love
* Say You Love Me
* Champagne Kisses
Listen: ‘Tough Love’ is available from 13th October.