In a 2013 interview with John Hind of The Guardian, as Jessie Ware was making the publicity rounds in support of her Mercury-nominated debut, the singer-songwriter playfully discussed her obsession with Marmite, Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey, the perfect bagel, and writing her dissertation on Franz Kafka. Strangely enough, those casual comments now seem quite prescient seven years later. If one of the most significant figures of 20th-century literature had once inspired her at the University of Sussex, then surely his classic novella Metamorphosis, and its allegorical tale of identity crisis in a world of overwhelming obligations, continued to ring true for her as she navigated international stardom over the past decade.
A career glitch performance at Glastonbury in 2018 led Ware to contemplate throwing in the towel for good. Instead, it had the unexpected effect of lifting the fog from her life. Not only did it inspire a hit food podcast called Table Manners and an acclaimed cookbook with her mother Lennie, but it gave rise to a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks that hearken back to her club-culture roots. As songwriting simmered on the back burner, the gastronome from London forged an unexpected cooking career as she reconnected with her passion for food. Unencumbered by the weight of expectation or reinvention, Ware reclaimed her love for making music. In the process, she created one of the year’s best records, the rapturous What’s Your Pleasure?
Not since her dazzling 2013 single, “Imagine It Was Us”, has Ware aimed her sights so squarely upon the dance floor, although she hinted her return to the genre with 2018’s euphoric house track “Overtime”. Save for a few intoxicating mid-tempo excursions — the slinky, tear-stained torture and carnal bliss of darkly filmic “In Your Eyes” and “The Kill”, a pulsing, post-midnight drive through the shadows into the morning light — her fourth full-length outing is an endless parade of disco-pop escapism. What’s Your Pleasure? is also a reminder that no matter how stunning those pipes are when they are unleashed on a soaring ballad, like past singles, “Say You Love Me” or “Alone”, they mesmerize even more, underpinned by a pounding four-to-the-floor beat.
The album opens with “Spotlight”, a gorgeous, theatrical slow-burner that dangles Ware’s adult-contemporary balladeer sound in front of the listener for 30 seconds. It then tosses that out the window as the beat kicks in, and she transforms into this smashing blend of Donna Summer and Lisa Stansfield, as seen through the lens of Giorgio Moroder. Brilliant title track “What’s Your Pleasure?” is full-on Kylie meets Róisín Murphy in an underground 1980s drag ball, while camptastic, disco-tinged “Ooh La La” sees Ware strut out her inner Teena Marie. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, she sings, “Ooh la la / Open up the door, you know I like it / Ooh la la / Chivalry was dead, but you revived it.”
The fourth track, “Soul Control”, with its eight-bit synths and funky guitar postlude, is charming as all hell — every bit early Janet Jackson, Sheila E, and Midnight Star rolled into one. The euphoric “Save a Kiss” sounds like Robyn and a resurrected Whitney Houston dancing together under disco lights. “Read My Lips” could easily be a long lost outtake from a Prince and Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam session, while the transcendent “Remember Where You Are” oozes old school charm, like a 21st-century “Les Fleurs”. There are so many spectacular highlights here that it often feels as if this is a greatest hits compilation, not just the result of a mid-career resurgence of creative inspiration.
Under the guidance of producers and collaborators, James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco), Joseph Mount (Metronomy), Adam Bainbridge (Kindness), Morgan Geist, Kid Harpoon, Clarence Coffee Jr (Lizzo, Dua Lipa), and many others, What’s You Pleasure? retains a remarkable continuity as it flits from style to style, decade to decade. Many of the tracks are enrobed in lavish string arrangements, courtesy of internationally renowned conductor and composer Jules Buckley — at once reminiscent of Felt Mountain-era Goldfrapp, Massive Attack, and sultry Bond soundtracks. One thing is for certain; she brought the best of the best to party with her this time around.
From the moment Jessica Lois Ware made a splash on the scene, the world was introduced to an altogether different kind of pop star. A reluctant diva with a degree in English literature, she pursued an early career in journalism and TV production before ditching her lawyer aspirations when Jack Peñate, Disclosure, Sampha, and SBTRKT came calling. Ware has tried on a variety of musical guises over the years — the sophisticated soul-pop of Devotion, the big-voiced R&B ballads of Tough Love, and the heartfelt, confessional vibe of Glasshouse. Not without their merit, there are so many breathtaking moments in her back catalog. Still, none of these alter personas are as captivating as the saucy, yet vulnerable temptress she plays so deliciously well here on What’s Your Pleasure?
Over the past two years, Ware rediscovered her muse, balanced her personal life with her professional, and unknowingly gifted her fans with the ultimate post-COVID-19 soundtrack to dance away the pain, confusion, and heartache of this tumultuous moment in time. One minute the record conjures up images of sweat-drenched strangers writhing under a shimmering mirror ball, and the next, it’s a joyous, hands-in-the-air celebration of love and life. Leading up to its arrival, Ware discussed the record’s genesis, saying, “I wanted it to be fun. The premise was: Will this make people want to have sex? And will this make people want to dance?” Yes, is the resounding answer. Mission accomplished, and it will be fascinating to see what she cooks up next.