Jessie Ware is an anomaly of a pop star. Years older than fellow British soul revivalists and pals Sam Smith and Adele, Ware and her brand of soft, understated R&B is reminiscent of early Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston — golden icons whose hits were executed with equal doses of subtlety and showboating. Her sophomore effort, Tough Love, while retaining the brassy, elegant classicism of her critically acclaimed debut, Devotion, underpins her efforts to join the big leagues of pop that have seemingly eluded her grasp.
Opting to collaborate with industry heavyweights such as mega-producer Benny Blanco (Katy Perry, Maroon 5) and R&B hitmakers Miguel and Ed Sheeran has laser-focused Ware’s tightrope straddling of classic, “quiet-storm” R&B and modernist, two-step electronica into soul pop that cherry-picks the greatest hits of past generations yet never truly resembles any past legend to the point of mere derivation. From her assured strut in the funky, four-to-the-floor disco burner “Want Your Feeling” to the emotive, string-drenched power ballad “Pieces,” she wanders thoroughly through the radio dials of yore while maintaining her own contemporary aesthetic.
Ware’s notions of love and heartbreak aren’t melancholic proclamations of endearment and dejection. Nor is she the damsel in distress pining for an absent lover. “Do I get lonely at all?” Ware posits on the Miguel collaboration. “Kind of .. sometimes … maybe.” Her titular response is indicative of the tacit intricacies in modern romance, an issue that is frequently curtailed into soppy, platitudinous fodder in the deep recesses of top-40 radio. Her stately sophistication ensures that she avoids falling into mere aphorism as she explores multitudes of emotions that range from sensual celebrations of passion on “Champagne Kisses” to triumphant kiss-offs on “Cruel.”
Tough Love’s emotional centerpiece is “Say You Love Me,” an impassioned plea for commitment from an ambivalent, enigmatic lover. Its gospel-inflected climax is breathtaking, marking an epiphany in which Ware obliterates her self-imposed walls of detachment in lieu of offering a tender, communal avowal of adoration. Its nearest parallel is, perhaps, Sam Smith’s globe-conquering smash “Stay With Me,” though Smith struggles to be heard in the clamor of his surroundings, while Ware’s lone drum-guitar rhythm is spacious enough to cede the stage to her nuanced, expressive vocals and is all the more gratifying for it.
“I can hear your song forever,” Ware professes in the wispy, minimalist song “Sweetest Song.” Though Ware utilizes this line in the oft-treaded “lover-as-melody” trope, it’s difficult not imagining her sentiment as an encapsulation of Tough Love. Ware successfully hedges her bets with Tough Love, creating a record that will appease the masses while withstanding the tests of time as a modern classic.
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