Jessie Ware: Devotion – review

Jessie Ware doesn't seem to be gunning for pop stardom or chart domination. But it all could happen anyway

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Sophisticated, smooth and sensual, in the wrong hands Devotion could easily have been a footnote in the New Boring movement, that vibrant strain of youth culture that has already given us Emeli Sandé, Adele and Bruce Springsteen concerts that wrestle with the spacetime continuum itself. Yet Jessie Ware's debut album is saved by one fact: for all her album's poise and restraint, dance music clearly runs through this 27-year-old south Londoner's veins.

A former guest vocalist for the dubstep-tinged likes of SBTRKT and Joker, Ware's teenage years were spent putting the graft in, researching her trade at drum'n'bass nights at Brixton's Mass. Yet until now she has always seemed more comfortable singing from the shadows rather than taking centre stage. "Being a backing singer was my idea of heaven," she once said, which doesn't exactly suggest a cut-throat desire to elbow aside the competition. In fact, Ware barely set out to be a singer at all, originally settling on a career as a journalist before finding herself in the somewhat improbable situation of being jealous of Jack Peñate – a former schoolmate (as was Florence Welch and stray members of the Maccabees) – who had the gumption to go out looking for a record deal.

Such reticence might be regarded as a stumbling block for a singer pushing out into solo-album territory. Yet one of the most enthralling things about Devotion is how Ware uses that restraint to her advantage. From the opening trickle of wind chimes to the delicate vocal refrain on closing track Something Inside, Devotion is by turns hushed, downbeat and unobtrusive. Yet unlike, say, Zomby or Kindness, eerie conceptualists mutating dance music into something unsettling, Devotion isn't in the business of playing fancy tricks with us. Rather, it's honest, heartfelt and warm. In many ways the record Devotion resembles most is Katy B's On a Mission. Not sonically – On a Mission was far more gregarious – but how it uses the colour palette of club culture as a starting point to paint broader pop pictures. It could be to that record what the 3am comedown is to the night before, or the Burial to Katy B's Benga, if you were after a particularly tortuous dubstep metaphor.

Ware sums up her mission statement on 110%, a fluttering affair which owes a debt to Mr Fingers' Can You Feel It and, in its skittering drum pattern, Kelis and Andre 3000's Millionaire: "I'll keep the dancefloor warm," she sings, before adding forlornly, "but I'm still dancing on my own."

Much like Robyn's own ode to dancing solo, Ware's lyrics often have a strikingly obsessive undertow. The distorted hip-hop sample that kicks off 110% is from Big Punisher's Dream Shatterer, a paean to the gangster lifestyle that boasts of "carving my initials on your forehead". Here, with the help of Bristolian house producer Julio Bashmore, Ware reappropriates the phrase, alluding instead to the power of furtive cross-dancefloor glances and the stamp of romantic ownership.

Relationships are rarely plain-sailing on Devotion, nor something Ware feels in control of. Yet they're tackled head-on regardless. On the title track she pleads: "Don't leave me in the dark, don't leave me this way." Sweet Talk, meanwhile, displays a confidence in her own willpower about as steady as the wobbly 80s keyboards: "I thought you knew I had to stay away from you … yeah still you have the power." Wildest Moments, an Olympic-sized power ballad that somehow still oozes subtlety, has Ware describing a tumultuous friendship in which "everyone must be wondering why we try".

Whether Ware's early experience as a football reporter – even covering matches for the Jewish Chronicle – helped her hone a simple, direct style is impossible to say. What's undeniable, though, is the fact that Ware has the sweetest vocal style yet to emerge from anyone who previously attended the crucial Boreham Wood v Arsenal XI friendly. Like Amy Winehouse, Ware once strived to sing like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and learned how to pack her voice with emotion. The results are on display through Devotion: Running is as slowly seductive as Sade, Ware's breathy tones surfing across the spotlight so that you barely notice the occasional guitar squalls, let alone Leo Taylor's laidback drumming.

And that's the thing – throughout Devotion you're never told to sit up and pay attention. Instead it quietly works its magic, a genuinely individual statement by an artist who didn't expect to become a pop star, but might struggle to stop it happening anyway – after all, the groove is in her heart.


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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