Friday, July 3, 2020

Review: What's Your Pleasure? • Jessie Ware

What was an artist like Jessie Ware to do? After beginning her career as a well-connected back-up vocalist, the singer-songwriter released her debut album in 2012 with lop-sided success, favored in her native United Kingdom. The album – and the two others that followed it, each with diminishing returns on investment – resided in a grey area: Her rich vocal texture and mid-tempo songwriting were too serious to bill as straight-up pop music, even in a post-Adele world, but they were just alluring enough to shy away from dull adult contemporary marketing. All the while, Ware’s voice proved to be more popular in another venue: With her mother as her co-host, she started a food podcast, which has racked up 3.5 million listeners in its run so far. So what was an artist like Jessie Ware, whose chats about food had garnered more attention than her latest Coachella set, to do? Swerve.

Her fourth studio record, What’s Your Pleasure?, ditches the middle-ground approach to contemplative somber pop – and instead, Ware employs her smooth soul intentions to restore the most primal, human instincts to this year's disco revival. Rather than plug and play the beats and strings into the mix with dance floor authority, Ware and her producer – James Ford, who worked on Ware’s back catalog, plenty of Arctic Monkeys records, and early Haim and Florence + the Machine material – slide each subtle element into place with an organic rhythm. The record doesn’t cut to the point with barbed melodies or aggressive beat-downs. Rather, it works its way into subtle but powerful climaxes more akin to funk and soul music – an impressive reinvention in Ware's artistic vision that proves she wasn’t completely compatible with the hodge-podge commercial pop sphere from which she originates.

When the fairytale overture on opening cut “Spotlight” stalls out, a saturated bass line and hand claps emerge from the shadows to support the album’s best vocal work. From there, What's Your Pleasure? is a slow burn of hazy titillation via lounge-chic seduction ("In Your Eyes," "Adore You," "The Kill") and more often, throbbing pulsations: A drum and bass tickle the senses beneath “Save a Kiss,” preluding a dance-induced sweat tsunami forming on the horizon, and a whiplash beat tosses the chorus chant of "Mirage (Don't Stop)" from wall to wall. When the doors to the club are kicked open in the morning, though, there's a sobering reminder: "The heart of the city is on fire. Sun on the rise, the highs are gonna fall," she sings on the closing number, reminding us that reality can't remain suspended forever. And while that's true, What's Your Pleasure? is at least one well-deserved midnight escape for the senses.

What's Your Pleasure? is available now under Virgin EMI Records.

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