[4 December 2013]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Jessie J is the UK version of Katy Perry. Or Katy Perry is the U.S. version of Jessie J. However you want to say it, that’s been the typical line on the European singer who struck gold with her debut set, 2011’s Who You Are. In addition to spawning the stateside hit “Domino”, Who You Are also became the first album by a British female artist to produce six Top 10 singles on the UK charts ... ever. As in, forever, ever. As in, that had never been done before. As in, quick: Do you know the other female artist to accomplish a similar feat when she landed five songs off one record at No. 1 in the United States? You got it.
So, from the thick vocals, to the soulful approach, to the kiss-off attitude, to the history of writing songs for others, and now to the record-breaking resumé, comparisons between the California Gurl and the LaserLight aren’t just warranted; they’re downright eerie. It’s like, wow: throw Ms. John Mayer in one of those Voice chairs, and the only difference between the two would be one Tom Jones and half a Carson Daly.
Until now. Jessie J’s latest pop-tacular, slightly uneven effort, Alive, sheds the Katy Perry rainbow for a much rougher, more interesting shade of Pink—both the artist and the color. A quick glance at the album cover is proof of as much: Gone are her jet-black, straight-laced locks, and in is a buzz cut, sometimes seen as a lighter shade of red that’s not unlike the one the “Just Give Me A Reason” singer once sported. She’s ready to take on the night, the woman born Jessica Cornish proclaims with these emotionally spent, over-the-top bursts of fun, and the regard for repercussion is nonexistent.
It begins with “It’s My Party”. Led into the evening by a clean pop guitar riff, the track is filled with ambition and recalls the feel of her new kindred’s “Blow Me (One Last Kiss)”. What sets Cornish apart, however, is her willingness to explore the wide range of her vocal abilities. By the time she reaches the explosive “addicted to attention” utterance in the song’s second verse, she’s already offered a pissy, sarcastic spoken-word line, an unforgettably catchy chorus and an all-around tone of independence and spite that continues as a through line between all of Alive‘s tracks.
She stumbles only when she leans on this approach more than she should. “Sexy Lady” and “Wild”, for instance, are too much a product of their environment, and in Jessie J’s case that’s bad, considering how fans may expect something more original from such a talented mind. Yet both tracks prove to be far too formulaic to succeed, as the former plays off a predictable penchant for promiscuous woman-power while the latter feels like a 2013 Jennifer Lopez C-side, despite a good-enough cameo from Big Sean and even better Dizzee Rascal appearance. Leave the low-rate EDM influences to the Miley Cyruses of the world, Ms. J. You’re better than that.
Actually, she’s a lot better than that, and she confirms it with “Thunder”, a gloriously epic synth-heavy ditty that somehow missed its initial spin-time on late-night retro-pop radio. If the electronic tom-toms don’t lure you in, the nod to Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” should be enough to get you searching for those florescent spandex tights you put in the attic two-and-a-half decades ago. “Daydreamin’”, meanwhile, is the set’s best moment as Cornish takes a Prince-inspired groove and goes all 1988 on its purple ass. Couple that with the impossibly tiny high note she squeezes out during the bridge and what you have is quite possibly the best song her short career has seen.
The rest lands somewhere between good and pretty good. “Harder We Fall” is one of the token acoustic-guitar-heavy radio-friendly jams that succeeds, but just barely, thanks to a muted climax and a vague dance-hall feel that pops up each time you’re ready to give up. “I Miss Her”, the most touching spot, is sparse, featuring little more than a piano and Cornish’s tender voice. Not only is it a tiny twist on the brokenhearted style most pop stars exploit, but it’s also a vehicle for the singer’s impressive vocal chops, which she learns to use with both vigor and attention. “Breathe” is made to be heard in arenas, its driving tempo and dramatic flirtation with quiet and loud adding texture to the anthemic nature of what the song so badly wants to be: a heavy-toned, rock-leaning singalong so often heard in today’s version of popular music, particularly by female artists (read: Alicia Keys’ “Girl On Fire”).
Even so, you can’t blame Jessie J for succumbing to the pressures of what’s expected from current pop stars. Trends or no trends, fads or no fads, followers or leaders, there are enough spots on Alive to remind fans why they fell in love with the singer in the first place: the ferocity with which she approaches song-writing is nearly unparalleled in 2013’s Hot 100 world. Yeah, she’s a little bit of Katy, a little bit of Pink, a little bit of A. Keys. But more so than any of these things, she’s a whole lot of Jessie J, which is encouraging to hear, especially on what could have been a forgotten sophomore effort. Jessica Cornish: 1. The Night: 0.