If you’re expecting an album that sounds like a follow up to Jessie Ware’s Mercury-nominated debut, Devotion (2012), you’re in for a shock.
Thematically, it’s not so different, with an emphasis that tends to be on desire and unrequited love. In what is possibly my favourite track on the album, the singer pleads with someone to ‘keep on lying’, because ‘if this is good love/then I don’t wanna know’ – leaving what or why she doesn’t want to know wonderfully ambiguous. But it’s the style and sound of Tough Love that separates it from Jessie Ware’s previous album.
It’s more confident, boldly stepping further into R&B and soul, particularly in ‘Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe’ and ‘Desire’. Electronically, it’s just as clever and well polished as you’d expect, creating an almost ethereal quality at times. But it’s undoubtedly the vocals that are most noticeably different here. The playful, high-voiced sound that characterised much of Devotion – as in the popular song ‘Running’ – is almost abandoned in favour of a lower alto, that rarely feels the need to shout as her younger self may have done previously.
However, whilst her lower range may be good (and it is), many of the songs seem to lack originality or interest. ‘Say You Love Me’ sounds like an Emeli Sande rip-off, ‘Sweetest Song‘ feels pointless (the chorus line ‘you’re the sweetest, sweetest song’ quickly becomes irritating) and ‘Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe‘ is oddly forgettable. In fact, the strongest tracks on Tough Love are generally those in which Ware sings in a higher register, with a faster tempo – closer to the style of her previous album. ‘Want Your Feeling’, ‘Pieces’ and ‘Keep On Lying’ are memorable, with Ware’s stunning voice heard in multi-layered harmonies that create haunting dissonances in songs that can truly engage the listener.
“The strongest tracks on ‘Tough Love’ are those in which Ware sings in a higher register”
You cannot deny that this album has significant merits; it’s well crafted, with some brilliant tracks. My problem is that originality is lacking in Ware’s latest offering. Her voice here is more impressive in its lower, alto register; more sultry, sensual and well-suited to a style that relies more on influences of R&B and soul. But many of the songs aren’t particularly memorable, which is the main issue; it makes for a pleasant and intriguing 43 minutes, but it’s not an overly memorable experience. The strongest songs don’t appear until halfway through the album (‘Want Your Feeling’, ‘Pieces’ and ‘Keep on Lying’), at which point it improves and becomes easier to enjoy.
Unfortunately, the last song returns to a more understated, slower style, and the mediocre track ‘Desire’ brings the album to a disappointingly underwhelming end. Tough Love is subtle, personal and difficult to fully appreciate, as the majority of its songs aren’t interesting enough to do the voice or the exquisite production justice.