Music Reviews

Jessie Ware Devotion

(PMR Records) Rating - 7/10

When people talk about pop music, they usually mean the kind of three-minute songs that bounce around the upper reaches of the charts and teenagers like to play from their mobile phones on the top deck of the bus. Like any genre of music, there’s an awful lot of dreck out there, but there’s also some incredible stuff too and, with the exception of a few specialist websites and magazines aimed towards children, this is what tends to get ignored by critics. At its best, pop music is instant, addictive, exciting and ephemeral. It may not have as much artistic weight to it as Blood On The Tracks, but why should that matter when it can get your foot tapping and your heart racing? Great pop music appears innocent but has a twinkle in its eye.

So when pop music is described as sophisticated (or, even worse, as “sophisti-pop”), it doesn’t do anyone any favours. Firstly, it writes other pop music off as pointless because of its supposed lack of sophistication, implying music needs more substance to be worthy of your time. Secondly, it gives the impression that the apparent “sophisti-pop”, while apparently “proper” music (with, y’know, feelings and artistic craft and stuff) should be lumped together with pop music, yet can’t just be called pop. The critical community’s approach to pop music reeks of snobbery, and no-one comes out of it well.

The reason for this pop-fixated preamble is to give some context to the apparent volte-face that’s about to come. For having listened to this album repeatedly over a period of weeks, the best description of its sound that this writer can muster is “like a sophisticated version of pop music”. This is meant to denigrate neither other pop music nor Jessie Ware herself though, for Devotion is a solid debut with some genuine standout moments.

Devotion drops you right into the middle of its pervading mood with the title track, which features ethereal effects, and melodies and riffs that appear to loop endlessly, creating a hypnotic, immersive effect. Despite Jessie Ware singing of devotion, it’s a restrained, British version of devotion that could be said to be, well, yes, sophisticated. In fact, the spectre of sophistication looms large over Devotion. Jessie Ware tells of relationships, yearning and heartbreak, yet she acts in a mature way, doesn’t lose her cool and maintains her sense of decorum throughout. Unlike her namesake, Jessie J, there’s no overwrought histrionics – the lyrics and the vocals convey enough on their own without the need to increase the notes per second rate. It could be argued Ware wants to project the image of sophistication visually too; take a look at that album cover – an elegant, classy look, hair in a bun, a portrait that fades at the edges. No need for tricks or youthful exuberance here, you take Jessie Ware as she comes.

This mood – arguably unlike anything else in mainstream music in 2012 – is both Devotion’s strength and downfall. Ware has spoken of her desire to be considered a singer “in the classic sense, like Annie Lennox, or Sade, or Whitney” (again, not your typical 2012 touchstones) and when she gets it right, she surpasses even those names. The best example of this is early single, Running, ostensibly a power ballad that meditates on the feeling of infatuation, but with a vocal performance so impeccably judged it should be a set text for any aspiring singers. The emotion shines through and, unlike so many of her peers, there’s a real understanding of dynamics. The sound is smooth, and even the guitar lines which could be considered kitsch on a different song complement Running perfectly.

However, the attempt to keep up this mood means other facets of Devotion are sometimes lacking, namely choruses. Tracks such as Night Light and Swan Song are pleasant enough, and give the required sense of brooding darkness, but just don’t hold the attention and could do with being dialled up a notch or two in order to really break through. There’s also Sweet Talk, where Jessie Ware gets it wrong entirely, and harks back to an unloved era of over-processed 80s electro, crowded by chintzy, synthetic sounds.

But just when Devotion looks like it could be losing its way, the most incongruous track of the eleven pulls it out of the bag. Again it’s a previous single, but 110% is a breath of fresh air after a stodgy mid-section. The bass is sparse and fluid, the percussion is breezy and propulsive and, like all of Devotion’s best tracks, the vocals convey the emotions of the lyrics exquisitely. 110% may sound lightweight on first listen, and the Big Pun sample (“Carving my initials on your forehead”) an odd choice of accompaniment, but it’s wonderfully lovelorn. There can’t be many lines more subtly heartbreaking than, “I’ll keep the dancefloor warm, but I’m still dancing on my own”.

Reference points on Devotion are intriguingly off-piste. There’s the clear influence of former collaborator, SBTRKT, on this record, but the most obvious comparisons are artists like Sade, Swing Out Sister or Soul II Soul. If this sounds a bit like music for a yuppie wine bar, that’s because it kind of is, but before you recoil with horror, this record really is no worse for that fact. Jessie Ware has been picking up some serious critical acclaim and has some trendy producers in tow (Julio Bashmore, Dave Okumu of The invisible), all of which seems exceptionally unlikely when you hear what Devotion sounds like.

Like too much pop music, Devotion is the kind of thing that doesn’t usually get considered seriously but somehow, thanks to her CV, it’s getting a fair crack of the whip. And that’s a great thing, and hopefully it’ll open the door to critics approaching all kinds of music without preconceptions and their own notions of cool. Devotion isn’t what you’d necessarily expect from Jessie Ware, it’s not what you’d expect from pop music and it’s not really anything you’d expect from anyone in 2012. However, it marks Jessie Ware out as a wonderful vocalist with – hopefully – a bright future. It’s pop music at its best and sophisticated to boot, but please don’t go calling it “sophisti-pop” – they just won’t understand.