2012 debut Devotion marked Jessie Ware’s step out of the shadows as a backing vocalist and into the central fold as a worthy artist in her own right. Launching a campaign that played on her modest, relatable dynamic, with live shows often punctuated by lengthy audience repartee and an album built around sleek, understated sophistication and approachable pondering on both the common points of health and hardship built into every human relationship, it was all admirably tied together by her eye for vocal restraint and the tasteful production of a few close friends, namely The Invisible’s Dave Okumu and Julio Bashmore.
Fast-forward a couple of years and its successor Tough Love sees Ware again pulling in favours from a cast of friends, but far more recognisable ones this time around. For example, Miguel shares writing credits on ‘You & I (Forever)’ and ‘Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe’, while Ed Sheeran’s influence is regrettably all too apparent on second single ‘Say You Love Me’ with its stilted, MOR acoustic chords and shamelessly-employed gospel choir in the track’s climaxing moments. It is Ware’s most obvious shot at a chart-topper yet, but who can blame her since a cursory look at her chart history reveals a criminally undervalued discography? However, it lacks all the flare that has prevented Ware from becoming just another identikit, Radio-2 friendly act, burying her reserved tones under acoustic guitar slaps and contrived melodies.
The most significant shift on Tough Love from her debut is towards far more intimate, ballad-driven ground with the playful vibrancy of tracks like ‘110%’ and ‘Sweet Talk’ on Devotion left behind altogether. Perhaps lacking in any major stylistic changes, it speaks volumes though that Tough Love is overall a success thanks to the ability of Ware and the majority of her collaborators to understand the art of crafting subtle, graceful pop music achieving just enough variety to steer clear of pedestrian terrain. ‘Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe’ digs its hook into the listener with spirited repetition, that ever-present refinement and funky guitar licks, the influence of co-writer Miguel making itself evident. Meanwhile, the gospel choir makes another appearance on returning producer Julio Bashmore’s contribution, ‘Keep On Lying’, but, rather than overbear Ware’s delicate vocal, it forms a harmonic backbone to her aching musings on the play-act behind upholding a broken relationship: “Can we keep it up, can we just believe / That’s exactly as it seems.”
Elsewhere, ‘Champagne Kisses’ excels in the rare moment of Ware dropping her guard and taking her vocal an octave higher in its refrain, intimating a sense of despondency in her words and building to a climax in which executive producers BenZel go in for the gut-punch with sweeping strings, though holding back at the very last moment and pulling it all back to leave little but her exposed voice. The album’s title-track also employs a similar trick with Ware occupying that higher vocal ground throughout above stripped-back drum patterns and subtle synths immediately setting it out as a delicate slow-burner.
Perhaps for all its balladry, Tough Love requires repeated listens in order to truly sink in with the listener. However, where the influence of the aforementioned BenZel makes for a slightly too polished whole product in comparison to Devotion and ultimately falls short of her debut effort, Tough Love ultimately makes up for it by knowing its strength. It mostly holds back when necessary, but also seamlessly recognises the right moments too, to relinquish its moderation, finding that sweet spot to fully manipulate its listener’s heartstrings.