Jessie Ware can breathe easy: she crooned her way right past the dreaded sophomore slump. The soulful UK songstress quickly and quietly struck gold with her 2012 debut Devotion, a genre-blurring set of delicate electronica (“110%”), soul (“Wildest Moments”) and quiet storm (“Night Light”) best served in the evening hours with a bottle of red. The album landed near-universal critical acclaim, including a prestigious Mercury Award nomination, as well as frequent comparisons to everyone from Adele to Sade.
After two years of touring, collaborations and a marriage, the singer returns this month with her follow-up Tough Love, a collection that is, surprisingly, born largely from broken hearts and hurt feelings. “I’m in a really happy stage of my life, but it doesn’t mean I can’t write about things that affect me or that I relate to from the past,” she said of the unexpected juxtaposition in a profile for The Guardian.
It’s not a bad tack: time and time again, Ware turns sadness into healing sound, from the album’s lush title track “Tough Love” to the Dev Hynes-assisted “Want Your Feeling.” While the lyrics of the latter track might leave Jessie aching all alone, the disco-inflected chorus — which might as well come from the Earth, Wind & Fire catalogue — suggests otherwise.
Tough Love also comprises even more talented hands than her debut — familiar ones, at that: While Jessie’s first outing was produced entirely by Dave Okumu (The Invisible), Kid Harpoon and Julio Bashmore, Jessie’s second serving is helmed by BenZel, the partnership of one of the pop industry’s most reliable beat-crafters, Benny Blanco (Britney Spears, Ke$ha), and rising London producer Two Inch Punch (Sam Smith). As a result, the record finds its footing somewhere in between the left-leaning British electronica scene and a more polished Top 40 pop sound.
Of all the new songwriting collaborators, “Adorn” crooner Miguel is perhaps the most seamless fit; his own R&B fusion is a natural complement to Ware’s own. He assists on “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe,” an electronic daydream that sways back and forth as Jessie grapples with the idea of getting back together with a former flame: “Do I want you at all? / OK, just a bit, I hate to admit,” she sings. She lays herself barer on “Say You Love Me,” a soulful, guitar-led slow jam written alongside Ed Sheeran. On “Pieces,” recorded alongside Lana Del Rey producer, Emile Haynie, the track plays like a thunderous Bond theme, high-drama and colored by swells of cinematic strings.
But the meatier production isn’t even the biggest change on the album: It’s the singer herself, whose increased confidence comes through in her more assured vocal delivery. There’s even a hint of a more mainstream pop superstar in waiting, as with the single-ready “You & I (Forever),” armed with a M83-like ’80’s electronic pulse that begs for radio. Strong, too, are the fluttery falsetto chorus of “Champagne Kisses” and “Cruel,” a slick, string-filled anthem equipped with one of her strongest hooks to date.
Tough Love is rich, romantic, and thoughtfully crafted, both more ambitious and more intimate than its predecessor. And, in a year of powerhouse pop divas loudly wailing, bang-banging and breaking free on top of the charts, the subdued LP is a much-needed reminder that a little restraint can sound just as sweet.