Island | twitter.com/JessieWare
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In my Superlative Albums I Wrote About in 2017 list, Glasshouse was awarded the Denis Villeneuve Geometric Figure for Most Stylish Production
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I’ve touched before on what is maybe a touch of synaesthesia that I have; wires between the senses somehow crossed. Sometimes numbers can be uncooperative. Sometimes music has a taste. And sometimes that taste is soft and cool and pink.
St. Vincent, for instance, shone on the superb Masseduction, an experience quite similar to being glassed with a vodka creaming soda in a garish neon-glow bar. But not all of them possess the pizazz of a blood-speckled cocktail umbrella thrust up the nostril: Lady Gaga dithered in musical no man’s land on the diluted box Cabernet Joanne, while Katy Perry failed to fizz on Witness‘ flat grapefruit Berocca.
On Glasshouse, Jessie Ware serves up a smooth, clean rosé, chilled to perfection.
In her third tastefully curated selection of torch songs and ballads there is a glimmer of Whitney Houston, and more than an éclat of Sade. But Jessie carefully circumscribes her palette. Hers is a discography of smooth, glassy textures selected specifically to flatter her supple, soulful vocals; quintessentially English. Percussion crisp and footstep-light, production always slinky-smooth, Jessie floats through a dreamscape entirely of her own. A gentle drape of soft, white linen billows in the breeze while a whisper of mist clings to her shapely ankles. Passing through a sunbeam, a shimmer of gold dances in her halo of hair. She is suspended, weightless in the air. Beneath her, the sky falls through the river.
The progression of Jessie’s albums reflects recent changes to the pop music landscape. Glasshouse, for all its modesty, may pride itself on the variety of subgenres on display — plush eighties pop on ‘Finish What We Start,’ a kiss of flamenco on ‘Selfish Love,’ a surprisingly chic shimmer of EDM-lite on ‘Love to Love’ — such eclecticism seldom being seen in the years BBB (before Beyoncé’s BEYONCÉ).
As her musical palette has widened, so too has Jessie’s emotional range. The last year has seen her brush a finger past the touchstones of marriage and motherhood, leaving a dusting of realism and practicality on her palms. She floats on Glasshouse, to be sure, but far closer to the ground than on her hypnotic debut album. Jessie first emerged in the early 2010s in the same wave of minimalist English R&B-house fusion that buoyed up à la mode duo AlunaGeorge, milquetoast whiteboy Sam Smith and mellifluous brothers Disclosure (Aluna, Sam and Jessie have all contributed guest vocals to Disclosure tracks that range from excellent to superb, as has the incomparable Lorde, who flooded the airwaves when that wave hit New Zealand), musicians that I mentally associate with my final years of high school.
Devotion leaned heavily into this minimalism to sublime if distressing effect, a constant stream of self-abnegating metaphor delivered with chillingly detached serenity: “I’m taking in water for you,” “You keep me running,” “Offer me something inside / A place to go / A place to hide.” At around the two-thirds mark, the delicate suspension of ‘110%’ gave way to a sudden, shocking outburst of violence — “Carving my initials on your forehead” — before slipping back into slumber as if nothing had happened.
The trajectory from Devotion to Glasshouse may be clearly traced: from the elegiac to the vibrant, from the passive to the proactive, always graced with a ripple of elegance. (Jessie’s splendid second album Tough Love marks the exact midpoint between the two poles, and should not be overlooked by any who find either other album to their taste.) ‘Alone,’ with its ascending arpeggios, stands out as a pop jewel, as does ‘Your Domino’ and its fluttery strata of handclaps. The loveliest moment of the album comes with the coda to Jessie’s charmingly simple ballad ‘Sam,’ when a tenderly plucked acoustic guitar gives way to a blur of pearlescent ambience. A muted trumpet solo shines through the fog, vaguely reminiscent of a baby’s gurgling. A moment of surrealism tethers together the album’s impressionistic tendencies.
A glasshouse allows its residents to flourish, keeping them warm and safe. But it can only function when closed, isolated from the outside world. Jessie purports transparency with her album title, a transparency belied by a literal physical wall of intimidating Tuscan clay next to which she poses glamorously. She shows exactly as much of herself as she chooses, ready to dart back into cover at the slightest provocation.
I am reminded of a certain cabinet at a grandmother’s house. It doesn’t matter whose grandmother. All grandmothers are contractually obligated to display one, draped with fussy lacey doilies, much in the way that electromagnetism is contractually obligated to repel like charges. It is a cabinet of dark wood and glass doors, full of pretty baubles and keepsakes. You can look all you like, but you can’t touch.
Glasshouse is to be observed rather than experienced, inducing in you separate emotion rather than inviting you into its own. Jessie Ware continues her immaculately stylish streak, to be enjoyed, certainly, but from a safe distance.
She lives in an untouchable world of her own.
You may not join her.
You may only watch.