[PMR / Island Records, 2012]
Jeff Pearson, September , 2012
Pop music is in a state of flux. This isn’t technically news; for as long as the radio and music met in the aisle to begin their lifelong courtship, trends dominate the realm of pop music, and the next big thing is yesterday’s news in the blink of an eye. This particular era of pop music is incredibly interesting, however. With radio gradually losing a lot of its power of taste-making with the widespread proliferation of digital media, the people have more say in what makes the charts and whether the next big thing, according to how behemoth corporations wish things to be, even has a chance to become yesterday’s news. Just in the past five years, the line between indie darlings and Grammy winners has begun to blur. There was a time—not long ago, by any means—when the division between those two distinctions wouldn’t even have been considered a line; it would be more like a shark-infested ocean, but now artists have the capability and, more importantly, the means to be both indie darlings and Grammy winners. Perhaps one day the radio will be a place resembling a sort of ghost town inhabited by artists who are neither, a place we only turn to when our iPods have died or our satellite radio subscriptions have run out. For now, though, the radio is a place where we wish we would hear songs that we love. We want to like radio. We want to be able to feel comfortable having our iPods die and know the safety blanket of the radio is there to provide us with songs we love. Unfortunately, it’s not like that. Fortunately, they make car chargers for iPods and we can take our own pop music obsessions with us. This is why I will probably never know whether Clear Channel plays Jessie Ware on the radio, but also why she has a legitimate chance at becoming a Grammy award winner.
After providing vocals to two of the stand-out tracks from fellow Brit SBTRKT’s self-titled debut, Jessie Ware began to develop a huge amount of buzz for what was to be her debut album. The twenty-seven year old singer had already made waves in the blogosphere even before putting any of her original music out there, and once “Running,” the lead single from her debut record, Devotion, was released, she quickly moved from obscure voice to compliment the skittering beats of a masked avenger set out to save UK garage to the artist with one of the most anticipated albums of the year. Though she broke into music through the electronic and dance realm, Ware wanted to develop her own sound and allow her inspirations and personality to shine through on the record. She met up with The Invisible’s Dave Okumu, and together they developed her vision into a fully fleshed-out record. Deeply rooted in Ware’s first love, hip-hop, and Okumu’s appreciation in soul and funk music, Devotion is a strong, realized effort that conveys the ups and downs of Ware’s rollercoaster ride to prominence and the emotions that come with that ride.
The album opens up with the sparsely orchestrated introduction, the title track “Devotion.” The track serves to ease the listener into Ware’s world of slowly unfolding pop music, a nuanced record in both scope and sound—from love-struck longing to heartbreak, soulful pop brushstrokes to the bass-heavy electronica that broke Ware into the game. “Devotion” is somewhere in the middle, with seething guitar lines crackling atop throbbing bass, all wrapping around Ware’s smooth vocal like a blanket. She sounds incredibly confident while delivering wary, vulnerable lines like, “Don’t leave me in the dark / Don’t leave me this way / ‘Cause nothing makes sense today.” The assured, relaxed way that Ware sings throughout Devotion is in stark contrast to the troubled love that seems to be the subject of many of the record’s tracks, and it’s what separates her from the seemingly countless heartbroken songstresses across the airwaves. It seems to imply that Ware has had her fair share of heartaches, but she has emerged all the better for it and the confidence with which she spins her tales makes for instantly classic renditions on age-old concepts.
Devotion is one of those records where each song could serve as a hit single in the period of touring support and the writing of the next record, giving Ware the potential to effectively stay perpetually in the public conscience. “Wildest Moments” shows off her gift of restraint, delivering memorable melodies throughout the track, sung soothingly and patiently above a slowly oscillating canvas of shimmering soul. While “Wildest Moments” is a great example of her ability to craft a pop song brinking on the edge of masterpiece with simplistic arrangements and vocal subtlety, Ware isn’t afraid to let her voice fly to achieve spine-tingling moments. The aforementioned lead single, “Running,” is a prime example of Ware using a firework display of dynamic vocal range to take her music to the next level. Without coming out of the gate too fast with acrobatic vocal lines, she lets the song burn slowly, crystalline guitar lines that are nearly as instantly memorable and singable as the words she is singing, Ware shows an understanding for dynamics on “Running.” The song constantly swells to the point of bursting, at which point Ware fittingly wails, “Am I ready to run? / Am I ready to fall? / I think I’m just ready to lose it all,” ripe with symbolism as she literally bears all with her emotive vocal.
Though Ware’s voice and lyricism are the components primarily on display throughout Devotion, and rightly so, the tracks wouldn’t shine as brightly without the pristine production. Dave Okumu colors each track in such a way that the tracks feel varied and each with their own personality but create an accomplished and cohesive effort as a whole. He even lends his vocals to each track, playing foil to Ware’s smoky voice, creating rich textures throughout Devotion. Ware gives Okumu the lead on “No To Love” and “110%,” lending a rap verse to the former, a repetitious hip-hop style beat, and a silken melody to the skittering electronica provided by guest producer Julio Bashmore on the latter. It’s a wonder that these risks taken on such an anticipated debut only do more to add to the integrity of Devotion; rather than throwing a wrench in the spokes, halting the natural momentum and pacing the record has, the varied styles on display only drive the record to further expanses that will gain attention of listeners of all creeds. “Night Light” and “Taking In Water” move sensually through the night air like the best R&B is meant to, while “Sweet Talk” has an upbeat bounce taking the listener back to the nineties, arguably the glory days of slickly produced radio pop.
Though Devotion is meticulously crafted pop music, meant to touch nerves in both the heart and whichever organ the urge to bust a dance move derives from, it never wavers in its complex artistry. Such is the day and age in pop music, where listeners are exposed to more and more melodic elements and production concepts and what could be defined as “pop” music grows broader and broader. The record plays like an artist making a reaffirming statement of consistent artistry, rather than the first glimpse into what is sure to be a promising career. Whether we’ll see Jessie Ware gallivanting down the Grammy red carpet in anticipation of recognition for her work remains a mystery, but for now the record will just have to do with taking the indie pop world by storm.