Saturday, December 1, 2012

Jessie Ware: Devotion (2012)



That lounging, lazy EBTG beat! The hazy memories of beloved Texas, Seal, and George Michael singles we grew up with and pretended for a while that we didn't adore! The dredging up of the meaty synths, sleazy soundscapes and lush arrangements that launched your whole conception of New Romantic and the post-Prince R&B revival! Well, what we're saying is that this record is a nostalgia trip, the latest of many for all the things you never expected you'd miss about Adult Contemporary radio circa 1986 to 1996. Is this an intelligent, emotive deconstruction of the genre's still-resonant elements along the lines of Pet Shop Boys' Behavior or Destroyer's Kaputt? God no, but it's the kind of well-engineered, nicely (if unremarkably) sung schmaltz that can brighten up your evening almost invariably.

Devotion has a broader appeal, of course, than the chillwave and indie artists who've been mining this territory for the last few years, which is one reason it's been so unironically embraced. It deserves this treatment -- quite apart from any specific tie to a time or a movement, it's a highly serviceable and unpretentious pop and R&B record with a welcome Sade sultriness. It could've probably been an EP, for its best material is frontloaded: the agreeably subtle "Devotion" calls back to the most immersive trip-hop, and the retro hippery of "Running" adds a little grit to its Eurythmics throwback, which culminates in a beautiful vocally stretched breakdown that boasts Ware's best singing. And "Still Love Me" offers the aural intrigue of early '90s top 40 at its trickiest and most soulful; hardly a mere valentine, it's all quite convincing.

The trouble starts when you discover how much of the back half is built on persuasive production and moods (offered mostly by Dave Okumu) but offers few actual complete songs; the last two cuts are forgettable mush, and predecessor "110%" isn't much better despite its whispered deadpan. Some of the tracks are wondrous creations in theory. "Sweet Talk" is just a few paces away from "Love on Top" with its interpolation of upbeat mid-'80s R&B, but it never lives up to its wondrous sound or to its sources. "No to Love" comes on like Madonna circa Bedtime Stories, kinky low-NRG that will set you to swooning if this sort of thing's in your neighborhood, but there are more hooks in thirty seconds of "Secret" and "Take a Bow" than in this full 3.5-minute flush. The delicately screwy verses on "Swan Song" are an improvement, but it too cops out with an uninspired chorus. None of this does much to combat the old adage that imitation pop is nice enough but no substitute for the real thing.

The central conflict of Devotion is illustrated in two songs that might as well have been both sides of a 7". Ware is already a legend in some places for the demented "Wildest Moments," a pounding melodrama of the highest order that features her towering voice atop a titanic, Olympics-sized anthem. It's sticky but glorious, the kind of song that musically references Savage Garden's "Truly, Madly, Deeply" and somehow makes that sound like a good idea. But skip on over to "Night Light," an attempt at a similar kind of overdriven pop bliss, and you discover how easily the same concepts can fly off in the wrong direction. It's the same kind of classic melodic twistiness, the same faux-inspirational lyrics, the same utter Shadow Morton bombast, but it just plods, sinks, dies. This is a fun album, but it proves that sheer nostalgia has more limits than a lot of songwriters and producers are willing to admit.

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