Many of Devotion’s best songs—“Running,” “Wildest Moments,” “110%”—have been at large for months, so I’m willing to bet most of you reading any reviews of this album have already formed an opinion on Jessie Ware. And I’m equally willing to bet that you kind of love her. Ware’s charmingly humble in person, but able to slip into an outsized, dramatic persona without seeming insincere (remember when “diva” was more synonymous with “strength and confidence” rather than “egotistical?”). She’s transparent about her preferences for Top 40 music. She’s accessible to fans without oversharing, be-eyelinered without looking tarted up. Even Ware’s backstory is sort of charming and of-an-earlier-time, plucked out of a career as a backup singer based on the strength of her voice. In appearance, aesthetic and song, Ware is a radio star in the online age.
In interviews, Jessie Ware likes to refer to her affinity for cultivating an image, calling out her tendency to act out a part. Her videos are sleek and stylized, her clothes, makeup, performance aesthetic and captivating voice a careful blend of 60s soul and 80s pop stars in the Sade vein. Still, Ware’s self-assessment is too self-deprecating; she’s not working some Tumbl-fied Urban Outfitters sham where the whole is no greater than the sum of its influences. In Devotion, Ware and her producers Dave Okumu and Julio Bashmore have worked to craft an approach and an album that synthesizes everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Barbra Streisand to Annie Lennox into a measured, mature album—a debut that’s a strong and cohesive artistic vision.
Devotion’s production is stellar, worthy of the spotlight but careful to not steal focus from Ware’s voice. The sound is far more than a sly nod to 80s pop excess, creamy and decadent enough to sound a part of that era, but reined in appropriately to avoid pastiche or sound too over the top. Two of the album’s best songs, “Wildest Moments” and “Night Light,” make expert use of “negative space,” the ebb and flow pacing leaving ample room for both emotional and sonic echo. Throughout, the pacing retains the best part of its Quiet Storm antecedents—the slow and steady burn that maintains tension and doesn’t let it break, like on “Swan Song” and “Sweet Talk.”
Smoky torch songs laced with modern touches comprise the lion’s share of the album, most notably “No To Love,” a simultaneous 80s ballad/90s R&B jam that even makes good use of the latter genre’s cheesier tropes (the ones that don’t often make it into millennial rehashes) like little spoken-word talk downs: “Forever I’ll be missing/ Without you.” That’s not to say there’s nothing on Devotion that isn’t wholly indebted to the 80s or 90s, though: with its feathery harmonies, lilting melody, garbled sample, and soft 2-step beat, “110%” sounds something like Dave Longstreth doing UK garage.
A lot of real and virtual ink has been spilled regarding the past decade’s preference for refresh instead of fresh when it comes to art. Instead of pushing forward, we’re rifling through the past’s closets, yanking things out, holding them up to see how they look, mixing and matching to lend the appearance of something new. It’s a tough hypothesis to argue against, but I’d say it’s equally difficult to argue that it doesn’t ever produce great results. With so much musical history so readily accessible, it’s easy to immerse yourself in the past; yet having it all at your fingertips doesn’t automatically make the curation process easier. Skilled curation is an art form, too, and I’d throw Ware out as an example of someone who’s managed to carve out a unique niche for herself by synthesizing past tropes in a way that sounds like a god’s-honest unique artist’s statement. On Devotion, Ware demonstrates a knack for weaving everything together. And just like in the best-tailored clothes, it’s difficult to see the seams.