Of all this decade’s artists who skirt the lines of R&B, Jessie Ware might have the most presence. She can go big vocally when she wants to, but most of the time she prefers a huskier mood, where the undertones and connotations of her lyrics linger like a curtain of fog, masking often-ambiguous emotions she doesn’t quite want to reveal anyway. In doing so, she can take the most plainspoken, modest sentiments and make them sound like bodice-rippers. Ware downplays this skill in interviews, telling the Guardian she’s “not very good at writing” — yet even her humility seems to demonstrate that she is.
For a while, though, it looked like Ware might be becoming a victim of her own success. Too much of Devotion, her critically lauded 2012 debut, was too buttoned-up and serious — too concerned with the Sade comparisons that mounted even before the record dropped. Meanwhile, the press around Ware was too preoccupied with her sensible-backup-singer image, as if artist, producers and listeners alike were working overtime to distance Ware from her poppier, clubbier peers and her own past as a dubstep vocalist for artists like SBTRKT.
This didn’t have to be the case. There’s a separate Devotion you could re-imagine, were you so inclined; it’s mostly spread out across other producers’ work, of which Ware is consistently the star. She played the slow-burn counterpart to Katy B and her in-house producer Geeneus on “Aaliyah” (in doing so, sounding a little like the Babygirl herself); joined Devotion producer Julio Bashmore on “Peppermint” to melt his frigid beat; became the standout of the myriad guests on Disclosure’s vocalist-who’s-who Settle by making “Confess to Me” a love song for a dalliance that’s perhaps a little disturbing; and on the best song of her career, Devotion bonus track and between-albums single “Imagine It Was Us,” she made falling in love sound both graceful and fraught without ever explicitly saying either. Ware’s gift, after all, is that she can bring out presence and portent in any track, no matter how tastefully decorated.
Revisiting these non-Devotion tracks is an ideal primer for Tough Love. On Ware’s second album, she dispenses with Devotion‘s relatively short list of collaborators and invites in a generous swath of the U.S. and U.K. pop scenes. Much of the album was produced by Dr. Luke protégé Benny Blanco, who is responsible for some of the worst pop songs of the past decade: Sean Kingston’s “Eenie Meenie,” Maroon 5′s “Payphone,” 3OH!3′s “First Kiss.” Here he teams up with Two Inch Punch as the conspicuously anonymized duo BenZel, who introduced themselves to the press by pretending to be teenage Japanese girls. The lead and most radio-ready single, “Say You Love Me,” is co-written by Ed Sheeran, who’s occasionally sparky on his own but acts as a dose of Nyquil when writing for others; his presence would signal bad omens even if he hadn’t concluded the song with a Sam Smith gospel choir.
What Blanco and Sheeran have in common is that they’re proven hitmakers on both sides of the pond; their help might translate as Ware seeking easy Radio 1 plays and a chance at pop radio — Tough Love has granted Ware chart success for the first time — by watering herself down. But it’d also be short-sighted. Devotion was no outre, chart-shy work; the three collaborators involved, Julio Bashmore, Kid Harpoon and Dave Okumu, have such big names as Florence + the Machine, Amy Winehouse and Paloma Faith among their credits. And the hitmakers on Tough Love aren’t all soporific; they also include the more exciting likes of Dev Hynes, whose spare songwriting is a natural fit for Ware’s vocal talents; the xx’s Romy Madley-Croft, perhaps Ware’s closest peer in vocal style; and R&B polyglot Miguel, a welcome presence on just about anything.
Despite all these names, the remarkable thing about Tough Love is how consistent it sounds. Ware takes a group of producers wildly disparate in sound, success rate and brand distinctiveness, and levels them with soft power. “Cruel,” co-written and produced by James Ford of Simian Mobile Disco, is the obvious successor to “Imagine It Was Us,” a late-night, slowed-down house track with R&B trills and string swoons and what might as well be Ware’s mission statement: “Never knew a love could be so cruel/ it’s not just what you say, it’s what you do.” Tough Love is an album about restraint and secrets and concealed feelings, and fittingly, Ware breathes subtext into everything.
The BenZel-produced title track is, at the outset, indeed tough to love (though it contains the album’s snappiest line: “So you wanna be a man about it/ do you have to?”), made of muted synths and a soprano vocal that almost shrinks away; but Ware’s voice slips from heartbreak to desire to anticipation and all the gradients in between. In her presence, the perhaps-dated or fusty conceits of “Desire” and “Champagne Kisses” come off evocative and deeply felt. Hynes is often accused of releasing overly minimal tracks and singsong-hymn melodies, but “Want Your Feeling” is a standout largely because of Ware’s presence: there’s more than enough of it to fill the space in the track.
Restraint might be Ware’s forte, but not everything on Tough Love is so muted. Ware fully embraces the last-call-at-karaoke power balladry of “Say You Love Me,” enough that the gospel breakdown somehow almost works despite its inherent corniness. Meanwhile, the sly “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe” slips in some levity, and more than a few fully unbuttoned lyrics: “Do I get lonely at all?/ No, ’cause Jamie and Johnny and Jack keep me warm.” There are a lot of hands at work here. BenZel’s contributes a chiptune swathed in reverb production (a favorite trick of Blanco’s), and Miguel contributes backing vocals and a classic R&B sweep. But Ware’s performance is the star, each note a shrug concealing a come-on concealing a reverie that’s maybe a little conflicted. In a year where the U.K.’s biggest exports either attempt to outshout each other (Sam Smith, Jessie J) or burrow deeper and deeper into intricate, micro-designed sounds (alt-J, FKA twigs), Ware demonstrates that subtlety can become its own kind of presence.