London songbird Jessie Ware‘s voice should be familiar to anyone who got some mileage out of dubstep producer SBTRKT’s 2011 debut, namely standout track “Nervous.” And Ware’s smoothly expressive vocals lent some character and color to Joker’s otherwise disappointing The Vision. For as big of a splash as she’s made on tracks bearing the credits of others, her best material, it turns out, was yet to come. The strength of “Nervous” alone landed Ware a solo label deal, a big step forward certainly, yet one that opened wide the possibilities of her artistry. Once a diva that ran in the best of dubstep circles, Ware has come into her own as a stunning and singular artist with Devotion, one of the strongest electronic pop albums to emerge this year.
Much as she’s done in the past, Ware has aligned herself with some notable producers on Devotion — Dave Okumu of UK indie rockers The Invisible, Julio Bashmore and Kid Harpoon, whose songwriting credits also show up on Florence and the Machine’s Ceremonials. Each one puts his own unique stamp on their respective songs, from Okumu’s heady layers of synth and guitar on the title track, to Bashmore’s ethereal sputter beats on “110%” and the soulful drama Kid Harpoon brings to tracks like “Night Light.” Yet none of these tracks would matter much without Ware’s heroic and huge, yet never tastelessly showy vocals. She can outsing the best of them, but knows when to let loose and hold back. She harnesses the sultry sophisti-croon of Sadé when she asks “Who says no to love?” on “No to Love,” and soars like a more soulful Florence on “Night Light.” Yet, arguably, the greatest moment in both vocals and production occurs on “Wildest Moments,” a tear-jerking testament to both triumph and failure in which Ware follows the titular refrain with both “We can be the greatest” and “We can be the worst of all.”
For a debut album, Devotion sounds incredibly mature, which may have something to do with Ware being closer to 30 than she is to 19. But age hardly seems a factor; talent of this magnitude is rare under even the broadest circumstances. Devotion finds that wonderful balance between bombast and restraint that even the most seasoned of artists sometimes wrestle with.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.