Music review: Jessie Ware flirts with parameters of pop in new album Tough Love

Jessie Ware is a delicious pop conundrum - she simultaneously soothes and bristles. -- PHOTO: ISLAND
Jessie Ware is a delicious pop conundrum - she simultaneously soothes and bristles. -- PHOTO: ISLAND

Jessie Ware is a delicious pop conundrum - she simultaneously soothes and bristles.

With her 2012 solo debut Devotion, the Londoner was roundly heralded as the second coming of Sade, a neo-sensualist who emotes with less, never more.

At the same time, she remains a cipher who refuses to be branded. She cruises through the quiet storm of downbeat electronica and late-night R&B, a Teflon queen with not a strand of hair out of place.

With Tough Love, however, things have changed - somewhat.

She is flirting with the parameters of the mainstream, while still maintaining a suspicious eye on fame's pitfalls.

The single Say You Love Me is her most straighforward attempt at radio play. It's a clear statement of intent, serving notice that she deserves as much limelight as famous pals Adele and Florence Welch.

"Say you love me to my face/ I need it more than your embrace," she announces languidly in the opening lines of the swooning big pop ballad, co-written with Top 40 hit-maker Ed Sheeran.

The beats, ponderous, triphoppy almost, are swiftly accompanied by soulful electric riffs before the song launches, full steam, into its refrain: "'Cause I don't wanna fall in love/ If you wanna try."

Lo and behold, an obligatory gospel chorus appears towards the end and lifts her by chanting the same words in a sing-along climax, while Ware erupts into a rare series of "no's". It is, you realise, her unabashed "Leona Lewis" moment.

Not unexpectedly, it's the least musically interesting song on the album, but even in its tattered high, she reins it in, never giving in to the baser instinct to showboat.

In comparison, the album title track is a masterclass in emotional shading.

Tough Love begins in an unusually higher register than normal. Her soprano rides over sparse, jaunty keys as she pleads: "So you wanna be man about it, do you have to?" It's a perfect counterplay of hard and soft, and Ware nails it with ease. It's a feminist anthem without waving a flag.

Where Beyonce may shove it in your face then strut a stance, Ware disarms with her lustrous croon.

Cruel is another dancey missive that belies its grit. You dance along to its minimalist retrosoul vibe, luxuriating in its strings and stuttering 1980s-styled dance beat, only to discover its devastating punchline: "You need to make your mind up/ Do you feel me reach the end of the line?"

Such is Ware's curatorial eye: Appropriating a variety of music genres from past and present and working with neo-soul revisionists Dev Hynes and Miguel, she seduces you in deceptively familiar settings before pulling the carpet from right underneath you.

Listen to Kind Of… Sometimes… Maybe, perhaps the sexiest passive-aggressive ballad you're likely to hear this year.

"I won't show you my cards/ But you came and you lost/ Do I want you at all," she asks, before replying with the song title, turning it like ball bearings in her hands.