The comfort zone has a bad reputation. No artist wants to be seen to be creatively complacent, or uncompetitive, a state of affairs that’s much more acute for women, as Taylor Swift once observed: “Reinvent yourself but only in a way that we find to be equally comforting and a challenge for you.” It’s worse yet again for older female musicians, expected to prove that they’re still as ambitious as their younger peers or to gracefully disappear into Radio 2. That dynamic plays out vividly in Jessie Ware’s career. Made with cutting-edge dance producers, her debut album, 2012’s Devotion, earned her comparisons to Frank Ocean’s elegant R&B. She was keen to maintain tastemaker approval on 2014’s Tough Love, but by 2017’s Glasshouse – released after the birth of her first child – she was shooting for the mainstream, hiring blue-chip songwriters and laughing off her old ambitions as a cocktail of snobbery and fear. The ensuing gigs were so disastrous that her mum told her to quit.
In the meantime, the pair started a hugely successful food podcast. With its cookbooks and live events, it’s probably more lucrative than mid-tier pop stardom. Ware had a second kid. That she made a fourth album anyway proves why you should never listen to your mother: it’s her best yet. What’s Your Pleasure? is a defiant return to the club-primed sound of Devotion that Ware, now 35, felt she had been pulled away from (another revealing detail about industry expectations). Although it lives on an entirely different dancefloor, it’s reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, which, after some creative misfires, restored her to the Eurodance that made her name. In her early aesthetic, Gaga found a safe space to explore her previously hidden pain, although critics questioned whether it fit her otherwise always-forward project. Ware doesn’t have such a rigid brand, and so slips commandingly back into plush post-disco. Seemingly freed from commercial expectations and intent on embracing fantasy, the only point is having a good time.
Unlike Glasshouse’s stately side, having a good time suits Ware’s voice. She excels at window-steaming intimacy and has the genuinely sultry lyrics to carry it off. “Is this love too hot to handle? / Make a wish, blow out my candle,” she gasps on the title track, a skin-to-skin account of mutual satisfaction. She’s poised, too, slipping around Read My Lips’s clipped funk as if darting down a hall of mirrors. It’s a deliciously flirtatious and commanding performance, if mostly an understated one. What’s Your Pleasure? is all about anticipation, leaving climax tantalisingly out of reach. The fleeting moments in which Ware flashes her vocal power become all the more striking. Save a Kiss layers tremulous string parts on throbbing gridded synths, the warmth swelling until the track seems to hover in mid-air; Ware sings about learning to be patient, and then cracks: “Save a little bit of your love!” she calls urgently.
Rare for a modern major-label pop album, What’s Your Pleasure? focuses on one sound. It feels more modern than Ware’s references to Earth, Wind & Fire and US R&B staple Teena Marie – closer to Moloko, or indeed Róisín Murphy in contemporary disco mode. It’s sleek yet intensely physical: Spotlight vibrates with momentum; the bell-like synths of Adore You are as cool as pond ripples. It also probably couldn’t exist without Robyn’s Honey, another grown-up disco album. (That album’s core personnel, Metronomy’s Joe Mount and Adam Bainbridge, both pop up alongside main producer James Ford.) In very Robyn fashion, Mirage (Don’t Stop) teases its own remix potential, as synth lens-flare, background party chatter and Ware’s silk drape of a voice melt into a juicy reverie. There’s a wealth of great Ware remixes, and What’s Your Pleasure? demands the full club revamp treatment.
Those idiosyncratic textures earn Ware her cheeky pastiches. The skittish Ooh La La is so brazenly rooted in early 80s New York that its insouciant funk not only echoes Rapture and Wordy Rappinghood, but its synth speckles wriggle like Keith Haring art works come to life. Last track Remember Where You Are jumps back earlier into the city’s music history, all velveteen disco gospel, golden vocal harmonies and crackling instrumentation. It’s the curtain call, Ware’s lyrics shifting from sex to comfort as the fantasy fades. “Why don’t you take me home?” she sings.
It’s a poignant final note. Home life, as in domesticity, doesn’t feature here as it did on Glasshouse: Ware has questioned whether people “want to hear about struggling mothers”. Pop should make room for such subjects, although given the industry’s confusion about what to do with older female artists, that feels a long way off. But the superb What’s Your Pleasure? makes a case to reimagine so-called comfort zones as potential lanes of expertise: free pop’s women from the pointless commercial burden to reinvent, let them hone their craft, and you get assured marvels like this.
• What’s Your Pleasure? is released on 19 June.