In the wave of glitterball-dazzled pop-dance albums that sparkled a little light into 2020’s gloom, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia was the world-beating monster smash – No 1 in 15 countries, 10bn streams and counting on Spotify. Kylie Minogue’s Disco, meanwhile, was the career-boosting critical and commercial hit, restoring its author to her natural habitat after forays into country and Christmas albums. But Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? was the classiest. In contrast to the neon-hued Future Nostalgia and Disco, it painted dancefloor euphoria in coolly muted shades and came wrapped in a sleeve that recalled one of Andy Warhol’s late 70s Polaroid portraits. It tapped a succession of hip names as collaborators – house producers Midland and Morgan Geist and Metronomy’s Joseph Mount among them – and it eschewed the obvious reference points, operating instead under the influence of Italo disco, baroque soul producer Charles Stepney and the kind of chugging 110bpm sound that the late Andrew Weatherall favoured at his A Love from Outer Space nights.
Confident and self-assured, it didn’t sound like a last roll of the dice from an artist at the end of their tether, although that’s precisely what it was. Disheartened by the lukewarm reception afforded her 2017 album, Glasshouse – a lunge for the middle-of-the-road involving a closing track co-authored by Ed Sheeran – and tired, as she recently put it, of being made “to feel like I needed to be the next Adele”, Ware fired her management and considered quitting music entirely to focus on her hugely popular podcast Table Manners. Three years on, the success of What’s Your Pleasure? means That! Feels Good! comes from a different place, and perhaps has different expectations.
It reunites Pleasure’s core team of Ware, producer James Ford and songwriters Danny Parker and Shungudzo Kuyimba, but adds a big-money transfer: Stuart Price, producer of Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, and a considerable chunk of Future Nostalgia. Its two lead singles were subject to high-profile premieres on Radios 1 and 2 respectively, evidence of a belief in Ware’s cross-generational appeal. Both are noticeably brighter-toned and more direct than anything its predecessor offered. The video for the first, Free Yourself, features Ware standing on a plinth, surrounded by androgynous dancers, literally waving a giant flag with the title emblazoned on it.
But if on the surface That! Feels Good! is more brash and upfront – heavy on anthemic songs that require Ware, always a strong vocalist, to belt it out rather than deploy the breathy coo that was its predecessor’s default setting – closer examination reveals it to be a slightly different garment cut from the same, high-quality cloth. Occasionally, it overplays its hand in pursuit of uplifting effect and its grin feels slightly fixed, not least on Beautiful People, which features Ware singing in a badly suited sprechgesang. But by and large, this is pop music made by people who really know what they’re doing. The songs have bulletproof melodies and killer choruses, while snappy lyrics abound: Shake the Bottle’s icy, well-elocuted put-downs (“Jimmy lies, Jimmy cries, Jimmy’s just like the other guys”) bear comparison with Cristina’s sharply witty depictions of New York’s 80s hipster demi-monde.
Moreover, it’s pop music made by people who have both great taste and the good sense to wear their inspirations lightly. The title track suggests someone has been listening to Remain in Light by Talking Heads, hence the clattering, hyperactive percussion and the brass (from London Afrobeat band Kokoroko) evocative of Jon Hassell’s playing on Houses in Motion, but it conjures a similar sweaty, nocturnal mood without ever losing its identity or slipping into pastiche. The songs tend to alight on small historical details rather than plump for wholesale retro affectation: the disruptive but propulsive effect of programmed drum rolls on early house music; the hint of the showtune that coloured some disco on Pearls; the oft-overlooked influence of Latin music on 90s New York house on Begin Again. Nothing here feels like the musical equivalent of Ware trying on a fancy dress costume. Instead, the personality that’s made her podcast such a success shines out, leavening the album’s preoccupation with shagging with dry humour – “shake it till the pearls fall off”; “I get a little bit of entertainment in your arms”; proudly announcing herself “a freak and a mother”.
Closing track These Lips pretty much sums up the album’s appeal: a huge chorus, a droll lyric, a fabulous brass arrangement that alternately floats over the song’s surface and blasts it out of the water. It’s 21st-century disco that never resorts to tacky cliches. If its predecessor’s success came in part thanks to being released during the era of the enforced kitchen dancefloor, That! Feels Good! suggests it was actually mostly down to its quality: it set a high standard that Ware seems entirely capable of maintaining.
This week Alexis listened to
The Paracosmos – Earthling
Epic folk-soul, with a sparkling yacht-rock chaser and backing vocals from British soul legend Linda Lewis.