In 2012, English singer-songwriter Jessie Ware released Devotion, providing one of the year’s greatest debut albums and one of the pop-sphere’s most singular works in recent memory. Her sweeping, soulful voice gave immense character to an impressive collection of modern R&B ballads that were less cheesy radio sing-alongs and more lonely, late-night, contemplative love anthems. Ware settled into this decade’s R&B resurgence with confidence and a singular voice that could topple top 40 radio and independent music blogs in one fell swoop, crashing into a culture that welcomed her talent with open arms and pricked ears.
Two years later, Ware is back with sophomore album Tough Love, perhaps hoping to capitalize on her immediate successes and deliver on the unquestionable promise of her debut. Though Ware has enjoyed a certain amount of acclaim from the indie crowd, all pop artists have a notoriously difficult time maintaining their success. Knowing this, Ware, to a certain extent, plays it safe on Tough Love, but the album also shows an artist that’s still exploring and developing her sound from the point where she left off. This, in effect, makes it a fruitful exchange for both Ware and her fans.
Tough Love is the vehicle Ware uses to traverse the outermost boundaries of the uniquely powerful R&B sound that she shaped for herself on Devotion. Her commitment to this style shouldn’t be read as contentment or an inability to evolve, because she is still expanding the scope of her sound with songs like the upbeat disco-soul jam “Want Your Feeling” and uniquely minimalist ballads such as “Desire” and “Keep on Lying”. Ware’s progression is subtle, but it’s there: she’s pushing out from the inside, not sitting passively within the house she has already built. This ensures that, while some may criticize her of being too complacent, these conservative stylistic shifts will actually work for the singer rather than moving too far in one direction and provoking a flub. It’s a deft move, if a cautious one, but when that approach creates a collection of songs that rival Devotion in quality and surpass it in variety, there’s no sense arguing against it.
Ware explores the depth of the capabilities of her own voice on the album as well, whether through the exasperated sighs of “Tough Love”, the dominant crescendos of “Say You Love Me”, or the big falsetto chorus of “Champagne Kisses”. Each songs finds Ware dipping her toes into something different vocally, musically or lyrically while still preserving and elaborating on her characteristic approach. She has no interest in reinventing the genre or the style she laid out for herself on Devotion, only taking it a step or two further.
Still, for all the accomplishments on Tough Love, the album’s lush production may be the most astounding. The songs are packed with classic pop and R&B sounds, from funky Michael Jackson guitar, bouncy disco basslines, and spaced-out pads, but they’re often underscored by subtle electronic drums and instruments, bringing ‘80s and ‘90s soul music into the modern era without being too obsessively retro. “Kind Of… Sometimes… Maybe” is a standout in this regard, its funky, seductive beat accented with staccato synthesizer blips over the muted guitar lines. Production team BenZel repeat this skillful juxtaposition on nearly every one of their contributions to the album, giving Ware a comfortable platform of nostalgic musical backdrops on which to lay her expressive vocals while providing a small bit of decidedly different and uniquely modern flavor.
All in all, Ware has gone the correct route with Tough Love. The moderated progression of her sound is sure to keep fans of Devotion more than happy while allowing the artist to engage her own talents in a meaningful way. More than anything, this is a set of heartfelt, beautiful soul confections, not bound or limited by any pretense that all artists must or must not change between a first and second effort. If it doesn’t hint at the wide-eyed ambition that Ware’s debut had, it’s okay, because the music is still there, her voice is still searching, and there’s still plenty of dancing to do.