There’s nothing flashy about Tough Love, Jessie Ware’s follow-up to her enticingly reserved debut. In some ways, the album is even more remote than Devotion, full of songs that, while flickering with warmth and emotion, never shed their veneer of chilly distance. All this is anchored by Ware’s increasingly commanding presence, which the music recedes to accommodate, her resonant voice filling out the broad spaces between delicate piano lines and minimal electronic flourishes throughout.
Dave Okumu’s production on Devotion was lush and brilliantly rich, but it at times seemed like the main focus, establishing Ware’s aesthetic while leaving her as a secondary presence. The work done here by BenZel, a collaborative effort between Benny Blanco and British upstart Two Inch Punch, is less obtrusive, hushed and essentially stripped down at times, adapting to the singer’s range by offering her ample room to stretch her voice. This means more adventurous trills mixed in with the usual cooing atmospherics, and while the album may seem less dynamic at first, the songs’ fine details reveal themselves more and more with further listens. The muted minimalism that defines many of these tracks grants added heft to the showstopper moments, like the appearance of a full choir on “Say You Love Me” and the soaring chorus of “Champagne Kisses,” these crescendos standing as bold counterpoints to the overall sense of soft calm.
In an era of shameless go-for-broke pop albums, there’s something refreshing about Ware’s sophisticated presence, her inclination toward demure love songs and classic soul touches. “You & I (Forever),” featuring Miguel, showcases two artists with a similarly subdued, polished sensibility crafting crystalline, luxuriously smooth music. Ware’s approach here comes close to that of Miguel on Kaleidoscope Dream—a commanding presence doing refreshingly earnest takes on old-fashioned material by modernizing old templates. Quieter and less anthemic than Devotion, Tough Love is an album that reveals itself gradually, reducing this ever-beguiling artist down to her essence, while offering ample opportunity for her to develop her technique.