August 24, 2012
Review: Jessie Ware – ‘Devotion’
R&B appears to be in a healthy place right now. The introspection-not-navel-gazing approach of Frank Ocean, The Weeknd et al has led to a new strain of the genre that’s both efreshing and respectful of its lineage, and South London singer Jessie Ware, on the strength of debut album Devotion, could arguably slide into that category too.
Ware has been lending her sultry pipes to artists such as Man Like Me and Bristol producer Joker (as well as singing backup with old school connection Jack Peñate) for the last couple of years now. A standalone single alongside producer/vocalist Sampha, last year’s ‘Valentine’, brought Ware’s way with a melody to the more immediate attention of the music press, and a continued working relationship with dubstep’s masked poster boy SBTRKT in the months that followed had her rapidly touted as a 2012 “one to watch”.
It’s never easy for the perennially “featured” vocalist to break out on their own, yet Devotion was being widely hyped for months before its eventual release (teased by a futuristic cover of Bobby Caldwell’s ‘What You Won’t Do For Love’ back in May), suggesting that Ware might buck the trend. And now the album has finally arrived, it seems the gushing praise may have been warranted.
As well as Ware’s vocal and songwriting abilities, Devotion provides a platform for a number of well-selected producers. Dave Okumu, frontman of The Invisible and recent onstage electrocution survivor, has a hand in some of its stronger moments, most notably on the title-track opener. A drifting, distant guitar loop sits below a measured beat and Ware’s stripped-back vocal, wasting no time in getting straight into the album’s themes of love, loss and longing from a straight-up, understated perspective. Thematically, this is well-trodden ground, but despite holding an English Literature degree, Ware thankfully resists the temptation to pack her lyrics with over-clever literary references and abstract prose — Devotion is essentially a pop record, after all.
Okumu also mans the boards for ‘No To Love’, a slightly more up-tempo (if not necessarily upbeat) production, with Ware seemingly cursing past actions through the repeated phrase of “who says no to love? / what was I thinking of?”.
One-time Florence + The Machine collaborator Kid Harpoon handles the album’s brassier tracks, with the bombast of ‘Wildest Moments’ vaguely reminiscent of Ms Welch’s cannon, minus the theatrics and honking lead vocal.
‘Still Love Me’ has more than a hint of Prince in its synthesised percussion groove (funnily, it’s first single ‘Running’ that actually samples the pint-sized purple one), and melodically harks back to Ware’s love of Chaka Khan, albeit from a more minimal perspective, while the mid-album duo of ‘Night Light’ and ‘Swan Song’ are both fine examples of the singer’s effortless way with a good hook.
‘Sweet Talk’, one of the poppier cuts here, combines trembling Rhodes chords with a shuffled 12/8 groove favoured by the drum machine programmers of ’80s R&B, and there are real notes of Sade in Ware’s voice. Comparisons can (and have) been drawn between the two, yet one of Devotion’s biggest achievements is its ability to combine songs full of convenient stylistic touchstones with the unique personality of its creator.
‘110%’ tributes Ware’s club background, her Robyn-esque paean to “dancing on my own” set to a flurrying beat not too dissimilar to the Andre 3000 and Kelis collaboration ‘Millionaire’, while closer ‘Something Inside’ is a rather forlorn plea for sanctuary over a misleadingly sweet arrangement of picked guitars minimal drums.
At its worst, Devotion only really deserves minor criticism (slightly formulaic pop/R&B box-ticking on the likes of ‘Wildest Moments’ and ‘Taking In Water’), and even these are just a matter of taste. That aside, the album is tune-heavy, full of wonderful uses of Ware’s voice and an exciting variety of production, and has a fundamental British-ness to it that’s sorely lacking in the recent work of her more mainstream contemporaries.
Read this review in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON