Until the first previews of “Devotion” started to appear in the form of streams, Jessie Ware was usually put in the somewhat vague category of vocalists for club producers with an inclination towards house and garage, something like the next generation of a family that previously had its first ladies in Ms. Dynamite and Katy B. Ware's CV features a string of high-profile guest spots on albums by the likes of Joker (“The Vision (Let Me Breathe)”) and SBTRKT, and on singles shared with, again, SBTRKT on Numbers (“Nervous”) and Sampha (“Valentine”), o single, “Strangest Feeling”, released on PMR Records thanks to Julio Bashmore. But as the advance tracks from the album appeared, it became obvious that her first solo full-length would be of a different calibre, and that her role of post-garage diva would fade into the background in favour of something more classic and less opportunistic. As Ware told The Guardian a few days back, her ambition is to be be “a private pop star, like Sade or Annie Lennox”.
That means the sound on “Devotion” (an astonishingly coherent and compact album) is that of an 80s brand of pop-soul, with one foot in the VIP lounge of an elite club and the other in the area of the lovers; deeply elegant and rhythmical music meant to reinforce Jessie Ware's voice, which, save The Invisible's Dave Okumu's background whispers (and his very much in the foreground rap on “No To Love”), is the absolute centre piece on the eleven pop gems, meant for consumption in a very intimate space, as if she were singing directly into one's ears. That also means that every link with dance music has disappeared (except on “110%”, produced by Julio Bashmore with a slightly uptempo beat with traces of footwork and jungle), in order to give the whole a timeless quality that could be both retro (the Sade factor, with the quiet storms of passion and silk it implies) and modern, as if she were the UK answer to Beyoncé's recent “4”.
The big virtue of “Devotion” is that, like Ware sings on the title track, “everything happens so easily”, precisely because the initial idea is concise, and its execution isn't altered by any modernist whim or interference from anyone other than Bashmore and Okumu in the production. Lexxx (Björk) and Kid Harpoon did their part on the mixing and engineering side, using all their wisdom and experience to dress the slow jamz in glittering textures, and not hesitating to add some drums, guitars and AOR moods where necessary. As is the case on “Running”, a song that sometimes crosses the line of über elegance, into Lisa Stansfield territory rather than Sade. But there hardly are any excesses, and all the references line up with crushing logic: “Still Love Me” sounds like something written by “Don’t Give Up” era Peter Gabriel, and the final part of the album firmly vindicates the influence of Sade's “Love Deluxe”, particularly on “Sweet Talk”, “Night Light” and “Something Inside”, the beautiful closing track that evaporates the Leona Lewis image of the preceding “Taking In Water” with one stroke of the pen. And most of all, the perfect ballad, the ideal electronic torch song “Wildest Moments”, a song which, had it been fallen into the hands of Annie Lennox, it would be the hit that would come with her glorious reappearance (apart from that boat moment at the London Olympics closing ceremony, of course).
“Devotion” isn't for the club, and, as said, it should be consumed in a private, intimate atmosphere, though not necessarily on one's own, if possibly with a couple of candles and a glass of wine. Maybe the setting it implies is too complacent and a tad prissy, but the songs never cross the sweetness line, nor do they look for the easy way out. Everything on “Devotion” sounds contained and respectful with the 80s white soul concept of the pop song, with which it's easy to make mistakes. Jessie Ware never steps on uncertain or dangerous ground, the LP is conveniently ridden of any dirt and impurity, and with each listen, it grows, gets under your skin. It might be all too risk-free, it may lack a touch of modernity that camouflages the nostalgic sound, but when you think where “Devotion” will be in five years and compare that to, say, Katy B's, or even Emeli Sandé's or Lianne La Havas' debut albums, you'll realise those details don't really matter, and that this is how it's supposed to be.