Jessie Ware isn’t typical pop-star material. She might be too shy, too old (she was 28 when her first album was released, ancient in a pop world dominated by teenagers and early twenty-somethings) or too down-to-earth. But Ware’s voice, although pretty much hidden behind thumping drums on Devotion, is so deceptively strong that her rise is inevitable. On Tough Love, Jessie’s vocals get more room to shine and by teaming up with other great songwriters (Miguel, Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, Ed Sheeran) she avoids falling victim to the second-album curse.

The album’s title track, and first single, isn’t what you’d expect from a newly married woman.1 Its lyrics (“When your heart becomes a million different pieces, that’s when you won’t be able to recognize this feeling / That’s called tough love”) are contemplative and are amplified by the sparse production. The album’s high point comes with Cruel, an urgent plea for her man to make his mind up. The passive-aggressive tone is executed perfectly, making sure the complaints never come across as whiny arguments. Second single Say You Love Me would probably have ended up a mediocre ballad in someone else’s, less gifted hands, but Jessie Ware’s powerful voice lifts the song to another level. It’s impossible to listen to her sing the line “Want to feel burning flames, when you say my name” and not feel some kind of emotion.2

Tough Love plays like this week’s Liverpool versus Real Madrid game: Ware stays very strong troughout the second half, but all the hits come during the first half. Just like that Madrid squad, Ware’s highs are very high, tracks like Cruel and Kind OfSometimesMaybe rank among the best of the year, and her lows are still good enough to beat most of the competition. Take Champagne Kisses, a repetitive, mid-tempo track which sounds like Jessie Ware on cruise control, but still is better than 90% of the output of her competitors. Keep On Lying is a great showcase of Ware’s brilliant writing skills: “I don’t want to hear all the honesty / We’ll be waking up to fantasy / But can we keep it up, can we just believe / That it’s exactly as it seems”. The sentiment of the track is almost Lana Del Rey-ian when she sings of “heaven in hell”.3

  1. I’m glad the album didn’t become a string of sugary love songs. Doubt and pain make for better art.
  2. If you don’t, I’ve got some news for you: you’re dead.
  3. Jessie Ware isn’t as depressing as LDR, though. Ware’s songs aren’t the happiest, but her work feels like sad optimism, not straight-up “take me to an asylum”, or cemetery for that matter.

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