What’s Your Pleasure?: a review & analysis of the new Jessie Ware album
Jessie Ware first crept onto the scene in 2012 with her debut album Devotion, after cutting her teeth by doing backup vocals for Jack Peñate and Florence + the Machine, both former classmates of hers. That album saw her blending left-field electronica with soulful and sophisticated pop sounds, and managed to earn her a Mercury Prize nomination. Ware would go on to tour worldwide before releasing her second album Tough Love, which saw her pulling in heavyweights like Ed Sheeran, Miguel, Dev Hynes, and Benny Blanco to put the album together. Despite the album going to be critically acclaimed, it wasn’t as successful as her first and saw her moving slightly away from the electronic-infused soul music she’d championed on her first album. Still, Ware managed to land a high-profile feature spot for Nicki Minaj on “The Crying Game” and in 2016, became pregnant with her husband. She took some time away from the spotlight to focus on motherhood before returning in 2017 with her third album Glasshouse — and though reviews and sales remained somewhat stable & the music was good, this felt like Ware was somewhat playing it safe. Ware later launched a podcast with her mother called Table Manners, focused on food and chit-chat and featuring stars like Sam Smith, previously mentioned Sheeran and Nigella Lawson — to immense success. Ware has gone on record to state that tour sales around the time of her third album weren’t looking too well, to the point that her mother even recommended quitting music entirely after an underwhelming set at Coachella. However, with the success of Table Manners, Ware felt that with music no longer being her main source of income, it was worth giving it another shot and this time, she could make music without worrying too much about the commercial aspects and now in 2020 — after having a second child — she is ready to return to the limelight with What’s Your Pleasure?.
“Spotlight” allows Ware to immediately cast any expectations longtime listeners may bring to the album aside, as she introduces her new disco-focused sound. Reteaming with James Ford — who briefly worked on her second album, Ware transports listeners into a moment where she longs to be with someone and bask in the honeymoon phase with them in real-time, and not just in her dreams. The production is string-heavy and lush, allowing Ware to display her emotive and powerful vocals as she adopts a dreamy and sultry tone. On the title track “What’s Your Pleasure?”, Ware turns the sexiness up to an eleven as she serves a more upbeat and intense disco banger. She sounds lustful yet not too wanton, recalling early Madonna in attitude as she spins innuendos and confidently expresses her sexual desires for her partner on the dance-floor. The production’s galvanizing dark synths add to the song’s hot and heavy vibe, genuinely feeling like Ware is having a sweaty night with someone in a club. Ware continues the sexy streak on “Ooh La La” but pulls back vocally, allowing the funky production to take center-stage. Ware is enticed by a love interest who does all the right things and treats her right, offering up herself sexually in return. The song’s 80s-influenced references complement the lyrical references to the city like technicolor street lights & waiting for her lover to pick her up on the avenue, immersing listeners in the moment of a city girl waiting for a night on the town with her lover. Ware continues to draw upon funk for “Soul Control”, one of the album’s most infectious offerings. Setting up a groove Prince would have lapped up, Ware also aims to weave in the late 80s-early 90s dance-pop of Janet Jackson as she sings about the attraction she feels to a love interest, declaring that she will relinquish control of her soul over to him. The song builds with synths and harmonies before climaxing with electric guitar riffs that play up Ware’s own desire for release from the sexual tension between her and her lover.
“Save a Kiss” is a ‘90s-house inspired dance-floor anthem in the vein of the genre’s traditional dramatic diva-led bangers, with Ware begging her love interest to wait until the next time they can be together again. The production here is relatively stripped back but still clubby, reliant on swooping synths and a pulsing drum pattern, and Ware sings with longing, constructing the song’s paradoxical hopeful yet melancholic sound in a manner to Robyn’s work on Body Talk. She collaborates with Metronomy’s Joseph Mount on “Adore You”, which mellows things out with a sparse but insistent beat. She sings softly and vulnerably as she confesses her adoration for the song’s recipient, which could be a lover, her child, or her fans and it feels like Ware could be singing to all three, sounding genuine and heartfelt. Though it’s a slower moment for the album, it’s a deep house inflected track that still sounds readymade for the dance floor. Ware keeps things at a languid pace on the simmering “In Your Eyes”, which explores a moment of uncertainty between her and her lover, the unsure tension being illustrated by the dramatic Bond-like strings that permeate the song. Ware’s vocals are impassioned and she sounds tortured, reluctant to let their relationship decay but unable to deny the friction between them, and insistent on working things through. She returns to a more upbeat disco sound on “Step Into My Life” where she resumes a seductive persona, cajoling a love interest to pursue a relationship with her, highlighting the natural attraction between them. The bridge sees collaborator Kindness mixing in his vocals in the background, working as Ware’s love interest, reciprocating the connection Ware feels. The strings build to a climactic crescendo as the song comes to a close and Ware’s vocals blend with Kindness’s.
Ware returns to a more funky-driven disco sound on “Read My Lips”, where Ware is pitched up a bit to achieve the delirious high she feels from talking to her lover. She states her intentions to shift their relationship to the physical, no longer content with sweet nothings over the phone, and her wordplay dances with the idea of her lover reading her lips despite only being able to hear her. “Mirage (Don’t Stop)” sees Ware pivot to a punchier house-influenced sound as she talks of a love interest she met on the dance floor and dreamily commanding they don’t stop moving together, claiming that he has saved her life. The searing clubby blend of disco and house adds in elements of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer”, adding to the heat between Ware and her love interest. She slows things down again on the arresting “The Kill”, where Ware sings with a calculated delivery reminiscent of the way she frames her lover as someone with the ability to kill her, acknowledging the inherent danger of revealing yourself to another & leaving each other open to the possibility of emotional damage. The production is driven by disco strings and a relentlessly churning beat, which sonically depict the anxieties and tension within the relationship as Ware & her love interest find themselves undeniably drawn to each other, but Ware is frightened of the ramifications should things go south. For album closer “Remember Where We Are”, Ware aims for a breezy 70s-soul influence yet remains unmistakably disco in her efforts, as she is backed up by a small choir. Ware finds herself amid an uncertain time but tries to reassure herself and others around her, reminding them to stay in the moment and of the love surrounding them. It’s a timely song, given the circumstances of the world at the time of this album’s release and it also works as a heartfelt sign-off, a moment of encouragement for listeners and herself as she brings the album to a string-laden finale.
Jessie Ware finds herself taking an invigorating turn on What’s Your Pleasure?, where she is uninhibited by commercial aspects yet finds her making one of her most dance-floor ready and commercially viable projects. In a year where disco and house have re-entered the mainstream, Ware may find herself facing comparisons for Lady Gaga’s similar return to the dance-floor on Chromatica, or to Dua Lipa’s disco reinvention on Future Nostalgia. However, though there are sonic similarities among all three albums, Ware’s album distinctively positions itself as a sophisticated and mature take on the genre as well as a more traditional one, directly referencing past conventions of the genre without needing to consider its flashiness with regards to modern pop audiences. As a result, Ware ends up somewhere near Robyn and Róisín Murphy in her efforts, with a bulletproof and consistent dance record that plays off in a much sexier and sleeker fashion. The album also feels like the artistic rejuvenation Ware’s career needed, as she proves she still has new and fresh ideas to offer the music world while still maintaining traces of the R&B and soul influences her listeners will have grown fond of by now. This is another welcome addition to the Jessie Ware canon & the pantheon of amazing albums released in 2020.