Commercially, Jessie Ware is a curious anomaly among R&B divas.
While her 2012 debut album, Devotion, went comfortably Top Five, after nine singles she still has yet to breach the UK Top 30 – and this in an age when albums are supposed to be dying in the face of selective download/streaming culture, particularly in the pop marketplace she inhabits.
Not that she should worry: Tough Love is an obvious chart-topper, marked by a winning blend of simplicity and sophistication which recalls Sade, and an engaging warmth and modesty that runs counter to the usual R&B tropes of exaggerated emotion and blustery reproach. It’s nowhere better demonstrated than on the new single “Say You Love Me”, co-written with Ed Sheeran, a reflective ballad aching with regret at a relationship crumbling away: “It looks as though we’re running out of words to say, and love’s floating away.”
It just sounds more natural, more lifelike, than the finger-pointing blame games played by most divas. Likewise, the desperate self-delusion of “Keep on Lying” speaks of genuine human emotion: “Can we keep it up, can we just believe that it’s exactly as it seems?”
It’s an approach repeated throughout, while the backings devised by the BenZel team of Benny Blanco and Two Inch Punch are ingeniously designed not to overpower the intimate character of Ware’s breathy high register. The gently scudding funk groove of “Tough Love” is typical, its delicate web of synth lines becoming slowly denser, until enveloping her voice in a whirl of sound.
Elsewhere, the puttering handclap groove of “Cruel” carries strings stained with melancholy, swaying with sadness; and the antique drum-machine beat and simple keyboard figure of “Keep on Lying” allows Ware’s banked harmonies to supply depth and texture. It’s not an album that fights for your attention, but one that knows it doesn’t have to try.