It’s all in the punctuation. While Jessie Ware’s fourth album, What’s Your Pleasure?, was presented as a question, a come-on and an invitation, That! Feels Good! is a rallying cry. On her sinuous, ecstatic fifth record, the British pop singer commands her audience to embrace dance-floor euphoria and sexual liberation like a gacked naval commander whipping new cadets into shape.
It’s a miraculous second chapter in a career revival that few saw coming – a record that deepens and strengthens Ware’s new-found mythology as a long-lost disco diva exhumed from the former premises of Studio 54, betting big on her charisma and curatorial talent and reaping even bigger rewards. From the record’s opening moments – shortly after an introduction in which Kylie Minogue, Róisín Murphy and Ware’s mother, among others, coo “That… feels good!” – Ware is a hypnotic, incontestable presence: “Freedom is a sound,” she intones. “And pleasure is a right!”
There’s good reason to be sceptical about That! Feels Good! We’re currently in a seemingly never-ending disco – or pseudo-disco – revival that’s seen many of pop’s heavy hitters, and just as many also-rans, shift their gaze towards old-school dance music. The first and most successful of these records was Dua Lipa’s early pandemic smash Future Nostalgia, a sugary but ultimately flimsy record produced with Stuart Price, who assisted Madonna’s similar but far superior Confessions on a Dance Floor 15 years earlier. Since then, Róisín Murphy, Kylie Minogue, Beyoncé, Sigrid, The Weeknd, Hikaru Utada, Alison Goldfrapp and, of course, Ware, have dipped into similarly vintage sounds, with varying degrees of success. Lizzo, Carly Rae Jepsen, Tove Lo, The xx’s Romy, indie artist U.S. Girls and others have also recently tried their hand at disco, if not for the duration of a full record.
For my money, the best examples, aside from Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, are Murphy’s Róisín Machine, Utada’s Bad Mode, The Weeknd’s Dawn FM and Beyoncé’s Renaissance. The worst by a mile is Sigrid, although I’m fond of that record in the way that cult movie fans love The Room. Even the most successful seem to be stepping away from the sound: Lipa is reportedly readying an album produced by Pharrell Williams, while Murphy is releasing an album made with the oddball hip-hop-influenced techno producer DJ Koze. If gossip blogs are anything to go by, Beyoncé’s sequel to Renaissance will be a full pivot to country music.
Disco – and all its emancipatory implications – means more to Ware, I’d dare say, than to most of these musicians. After two promising and successful albums of quiet storm R&B and piano balladry, Ware’s career seemed to fall off a cliff with her third album, 2017’s Glasshouse. Its maudlin veneer placed her smack bang in pop’s milquetoast middle and the lukewarm reception, and her exhaustion after touring it, led Ware to consider throwing in the towel entirely. The success of her podcast Table Manners re-energised her, allowing her to show off a funnier and more vulnerable side. Emboldened, she started on What’s Your Pleasure? and discovered that working in the realm of dance music – a world she came up in, guesting on songs by underground artists such as Sbtrkt and Joker in the late 2000s – could be equally liberating.
What’s Your Pleasure? was a runaway success. It used Donna Summer’s experiments with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte as a blueprint, creating disco songs with a metronomic pulse and uncanny sheen, as glossy and enticing as the basin of a champagne coupe. Summer is still a guiding light here but more in spirit than sound. In the previous record, Ware had Summer’s tone down pat: a breathy, inviting coo that constantly fades in and out of frame, occasionally piercing you directly but more often helping to conjure a song’s rare, stardusted vibe. Here, Ware leans towards an outright belt – a mode her satiny voice can absolutely handle – but pays tribute to Summer’s spiritual legacy, specifically the idea that sexuality is a driving force of dance music. Building on the tour for What’s Your Pleasure?, during which she wielded a whip onstage, on That! Feels Good! Ware posits that sexual liberation is the cure-all for spiritual or emotional maladies.
Early on, during “Free Yourself”, she plays the role of horny preacher, proselytising those reticent to take their destiny into their own hands – “Why don’t you please yourself? / If it feels so good, then don’t you stop!” Later she espouses the value of “shaking it ’til the pearls come off”, commands a partner to “freak me now”, promises that “these lips can turn milk to gold / these lips could soothe body and soul”. Across That! Feels Good! brazen sexuality becomes a kind of shortcut towards power, self-determination and supreme confidence. On “Beautiful People”, she sings about “tears in my eyes, dancing myself to sleep”. It feels a little like reading the “before” testimony on the website of a mystical self-help guru; the “after”, of course, is the glamorous physicality of Ware, who seems only to drink martinis and wear gold lamé. That! Feels Good! is the guide to get you there.
On the surface, Ware’s work seems to bear a lot in common with Lizzo, the American pop singer whose music has become known for its blithely simplistic – and decidedly polarising – messages of empowerment. Both singers reference soul and disco and both load their songs with camp innuendo and over-the-top winks towards the audience. The difference lies in the little details: if Lizzo is telling you how to feel – sometimes literally: “In case nobody told you today,” she sings, “you’re special!” – Ware shows you. She’s an entrancing and aspirational figure as she sashays through the sleazy, glittering environs of her own songs. It’s not subtle music but Ware plays it with subtlety, and that counts for a lot here. Ware is also very funny: her boasts on “These Lips”, for example, quickly devolve into absurdist non sequiturs such as “These lips are wanted in a hundred countries, maybe more”.
Crucially, Ware’s music sounds great, miles away from the airbrushed veneer of Lizzo’s. Instead of the pulsating sleekness of What’s Your Pleasure?, That! Feels Good! channels funky, groove-heavy disco acts such as Chic, giving the music a heft and physicality that matches the orgiastic va-va-voom of Ware’s lyrics.
The biggest – and best – change Ware has made between records is the addition of a live band. She is backed by the London afrobeats group KOKOROKO, who recently played at Golden Plains Festival in Victoria. The resulting album is rich and impressively detailed, easily swinging from velveteen soul (“Hello Love”) straight into a song such as “Begin Again”, which opens with a nod to “Mas Que Nada” before spiralling into a spectacularly dense funk workout. The addition of KOKOROKO’s fleet horn section in particular makes songs that sound gimmicky on paper, such as the vaudevillian, joke-heavy “Shake the Bottle” or the partially spoken “Beautiful People”, sharper and more sophisticated.
At 38, Ware joins the ranks of a handful of female pop musicians making career-best work into their late 30s, 40s and 50s – Caroline Polachek, Kelela, Lana Del Rey, Róisín Murphy – defying historically ageist and sexist attitudes that dictate they should aspire for a certain modesty as they get older. Ware’s age feels crucial, not incidental, to the confident and powerful guise she adopts on That! Feels Good!
Early on, she proclaims that she’s “a lady, lover, freak and a mother”, and it feels like a distinct rejection of any stylistic boxes. Ware has spoken about how, as her career progressed, she found herself surrounded by industry figures who wanted to turn her into an “Adele type”. Given how fruitful her new life as a raunchy dance-floor doyenne has been so far, it is a huge relief that she pushed back.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "Lady, lover, freak, mother".
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