Album of the year : Devotion - Jessie Ware

A handful of collaborations released during 2010 and 2011 hinted at Jessie Ware’s range and potential. The singer outclassed her fellow vocalists on SBTRKT’s SBTRKT and Joker’s The Vision; she displayed exquisite restraint on the former’s ‘Right Thing to Do’, while she had her way with the latter’s lancing title track. Along with the two low-key 2011 singles, “Valentine” and “Strangest Feeling,” there were indications that Ware was capable of making something like Devotion — an album of uncommon depth, a sophisticated but stimulating hybrid of pop, soul, and adult contemporary

Devotion, however, marries her natural gift with throbbing instrumentation that breathes life into every single turn of phrase or sensitive vocal embellishment. The tempos bounce lightly, the drama escalates, the synth-laden ambience cascades like so many postcard waterfalls. This is smouldering music, its smoke bewitching enough to make the original fire more or less irrelevant

The record was largely produced by three men- Dave Okumu of UK art rockers the Invisible, Bristol electronic upstart Julio Bashmore, and singer-songwriter Kid Harpoon, who co-wrote songs on Florence and the Machine’s Ceremonials, each leaving his distinct mark without distracting from the whole. Okumu’s tracks, especially opener ‘Devotion’, are dark and dense, hinting at passion’s underbelly with each deep bass hit; Bashmore’s are more airy and upbeat, primed for classy dancefloors worldwide; Kid Harpoon offers the most festival-ready songs- big hooks, bigger drums- like ‘Wildest Moments’. Tying the disparate sounds together are Okumu, who co-produced and played many instruments on nearly every track, and of course Ware herself, who co-wrote all but one song. Her voice is a marvel throughout, often gaining power by holding back or briefly teasing its scope while staying faithful to melody over melisma. Her words are in tune with this refinement as they chronicle the in-betweenness of love, dismissing easy pleasures for feelings that are more hard-won, confusing, and frightening

Take the most classically ‘pop’ song here: the weightless ‘Sweet Talk’, which modernizes Whitney Houston’s late-80s effervescence à la Beyoncé’s Love on Top. On the face of it, the track is all endless dimples and mesmerizing lips, but then the verses sink in: “Don’t keep me with the kisses, there’s never any there when I need,” pleads Ware. She knows she’s going to fall for the smooth nothings once again, though, and lets the keys try to cover the inevitable regret, which plays out on ‘Running’, where Ware starts, “Your words alone could drive me to a thousand tears.” The title track, with its foreboding murk, gives whiffs of a seance as Ware asks, “Ready to love but do you want it enough?/ Can we find a way to bring it back again?” Given the track’s perfectly rendered storm clouds, you get the impression she already knows the answers. The idea of running comes up often on Devotion, and it’s clear that Ware isn’t interested in the sprints- when it comes to love, she’s angling for a marathon. And she knows marathons can be really, really tough

Talking about her childhood aspirations earlier this year, Ware said, “It’s so unattainable to be a singer. I’d watch ‘Top of the Pops’ and think I could never do that. And I didn’t look like a pop star compared to the people I used to watch on MTV like J.Lo or Destiny’s Child.” As a middle-class Jewish girl from South London who’s closer to 30 than 20, she’s still nothing close to a cookie-cutter R&B breakout. Her success thus far, and its upward trajectory thanks to Devotion, is a testament to both her talent and budding songwriting skills, as well as the wide-open field that is modern R&B

“I’m just having fun and trying to pretend I’m a pop star,” said Ware, talking about her high-style videos. And while embellishment and theatricality is still a coveted and worthwhile pursuit within the pop realm, the beautiful thing is that, in 2012, Jessie Ware doesn’t need to pretend more than anyone else

Buy it here

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