In the wave of shimmering pop-dance albums that shone some light into the darkness of 2020, Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia was the monster worldwide smash: No. 1 in 15 countries, 10 billion streams and counting on Spotify. Disc by Kylie Minogue, meanwhile, was the critical and commercial success that boosted her career, returning her songwriting back to her natural habitat after forays into country and Christmas albums. But what is your pleasure of Jessie Ware? it was the most elegant. In contrast to the neon-hued Future Nostalgia and Disco, she painted dance floor euphoria in cool, muted hues and was swathed in a sleeve reminiscent of one of Andy Warhol’s Polaroid portraits from the late 1970s. He tapped a number of trendy names as collaborators – including house producers Midland and Metronomy’s Morgan Geist and Joseph Mount – and avoided the obvious benchmarks, instead operating under the influence of Italo disco, soul producer Baroque Charles Stepney and the kind of chugging 110bpm sound that the late Andrew Weatherall favored on his A Love from Outer Space soirees.
Confident and sure of himself, he didn’t look like the latest roll of the dice from a struggling artist, although that was exactly what he was. Disheartened by the tepid reception her 2017 album Glasshouse — a midway lunge that includes a closing track co-written by Ed Sheeran — and tired, as she put it recently, of feeling forced to “feel like I needed to be the next Adele,” Ware fired her management and considered giving up music entirely to focus on her hugely popular podcast Table Manners. Three years later, the success of What’s Your Pleasure? means that! Feel good! comes from a different place and perhaps has different expectations.
It brings together Pleasure’s core team Ware, producer James Ford and songwriters Danny Parker and Shungudzo Kuyimba, but adds a big cash transfer: Stuart Price, producer of Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor, and a sizable chunk of Future Nostalgia. Its two lead singles were given high-profile premieres on Radio 1 and 2 respectively, evidence of faith in Ware’s cross-generational appeal. Both are noticeably brighter and more direct than anything offered by its predecessor. The video for the first, Free Yourself, features Ware standing on a pedestal, surrounded by androgynous dancers, literally waving a giant flag with the title on it.
But if on the surface That! Feel good! is more brash and forthright – filled with anthems that require Ware, always a strong singer, to belt out rather than deploy the wheezy coo that was its predecessor’s default – closer inspection reveals that it’s a garment slightly different from the same , high quality cloth. Occasionally, she goes overboard for uplifting effect and his smile seems slightly fixed, not least in Beautiful People, in which Ware sings in an inappropriate sprechgesang. But in general, this is pop music created 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-delivered lines (“Jimmy lies, Jimmy cries, Jimmy’s just like the other boys”) stand up to the sharply witty renditions by Cristina of New York’s 80s hipster demi-monde.
Related: Jessie Ware: ‘I miss the dance and the sweat and the touch and body odor’
Plus, it’s pop music made by people who have both good taste and the sense to wear their inspirations lightly. The title track suggests that someone has heard Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, hence the loud, hyperactive percussion and brass (by London Afrobeat band Kokoroko) that evoke Jon Hassell’s playing on Houses in Motion, but evoke a similar sweaty, nocturnal mood without ever losing its identity or slipping into pastiche. The songs tend to focus on small historical details rather than wholesale retro affectation: the disruptive but propulsive effect of programmed drum rolls on early house music; the hint of the melody that colored some records on Pearls; the often 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 made his podcast such a hit shines through, heightening the album’s concern for fuck it with dry humor — “shake it ’til the pearls drop”; “I have some fun in your arms”; proudly proclaiming himself “a monster AND a mother”.
Closing track These Lips pretty much sums up the album’s appeal: a huge chorus, zany lyrics, a fabulous brass arrangement that alternately floats on the surface of the song and blows it out of the water. It’s the 21st century disco that never resorts to tacky clichés. If its predecessor’s success came in part thanks to its release during the kitchen-forced dancefloor era, That! Feel good! suggests that it was actually mostly due to its quality – it set a high standard that Ware seems quite capable of maintaining.
This week Alexis listened
The Paracosm – Terrestrial
Epic folk-soul, with a shimmering yacht-rock chaser and backing vocals from British soul legend Linda Lewis.