With the release of her 2012 debut, Devotion, Jessie Ware ushered in something of a British soul revival, prompting the likes of Sam Smith and Sinead Harnett with their brands of down-tempo, emotive balladry. In the thoughtful production on Devotion as well as 2014’s follow-up Tough Love – see Bristol’s Julio Bashmore on the ‘80s synth movement of ‘Sweet Talk’ and Jeremy Greenspan on extra feature ‘12’ – Ware managed to escape pop-motivated cliché and instead produce satisfying tracks that walked the line between commercial viability and artistry. With over a million records sold worldwide and a recent US tour that sold out in minutes, Ware has clearly transcended the ‘British soul’ label and is now set to release her third LP, Glasshouse.
Written between London and LA, Glasshouse features extensive collaborations from Ed Sheeran to One Republic frontman Ryan Tedder, The Invisible’s Dave Okumu and Hugo and Felix White from the Maccabees. This collaborative jostling manifests in a record largely informed by the polished, radio-friendly sheen of LA. Opener ‘Midnight’ is a powerful display of Ware’s vocals, floating above undulating strings, percussive funk grooves and gospel backing. It carries all the dramatic ‘80s hallmarks of an Anita Baker classic like ‘Sweet Love’, yet fails to formulate a hook to rival Baker’s. In this way, Ware conjures the kinds of soul nostalgia mined so effectively by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars on ‘Uptown Funk’ – formulating creativity within well-trodden generic characteristics.
This tendency to pander to audience familiarity continues on the theatrical ballad ‘Thinking About You’, the Sam Smith-style number ‘Alone’, and Sampha-esque choral ambience of ‘First Time’. While none of these tracks are overtly displeasing, the tonal similarities make for a homogenous listening experience and the arrangements progress in such regular fashion that they become predictable. Whereas on Devotion Ware managed to sing the romantic cliché of tracks like ‘Night Light’ without descending into pastiche, on Glasshouse she is less successful. This is where corporate A&R influence is felt most clearly, repackaging previous success for a captive audience.
In fact, on numbers like ‘Your Domino’ and ‘Finish What We Started’, the upbeat choruses are so light as to be saccharine, whilst languorous ballads like ‘Hearts’ and ‘Slow Me Down’ gesture towards emotional authenticity but fall short, becoming place holders rather than memorable pieces in their own right.
Sadly, through the 14 tracks of Glasshouse, it seems to be the soul that is missing from Ware’s soul-influenced record. Unlike her contemporaries Jamie Woon and Sampha, Ware seems to have dampened her original sense of experimentation. Starting strongly on the propulsive movement of ‘Midnight’, the record is in need of editing, as ballads soon merge into each other and fade into the background. While Ware’s vocal performances are consistently strong, the album rarely displays the personality that made Tough Love and Devotion; instead, it falls prey to the commercial tropes of its own making.