Over the past seven years, Jessie Ware has built up a stellar reputation as a critically lauded pop singer always on the cusp of breaking out. The London singer got her start in post-dubstep, working on EPs and collaborations with producer Sbtrkt, alongside another beloved British singer, Sampha. She then struck out on her own with the assured R&B album Devotion, which alongside Channel Orange and Kaleidoscope Dream served as part of an alternative renaissance in the genre in 2012. From there, she tried on different hats, working with artists like A$AP Rocky, Nicki Minaj, and Ed Sheeran, eventually following up her breakthrough with the scattered Tough Love in 2014. Three years later, she’s returned with Glasshouse, self-described as her most personal record yet, centered on her relationships in the wake of the recent birth of her first child.
Her biggest hit to date, “Say You Love Me”, has become something of a staple on reality-singing competitions in recent years, being used multiple times on X-Factor and both the American and British versions of The Voice, even though it only peaked at 22 on the UK Singles Chart. She joked about this discrepancy in an interview with Spin, and it’s easy to understand why it would be frustrating to have your biggest hit stripped of its personality and parroted by a lesser vocalist trying to impress Blake Shelton and go viral. The distinct vision that Ware brings to her music is what gave her best songs like “Wildest Moments” or “Sweet Talk” their gravitas, and it’s also what she struggles to recapture at times throughout Glasshouse.
Ware’s powerful voice stands as the focal point of Glasshouse, piercing through the swirling electronics on moments like opener “Midnight”, where an impressive vocal run helps make up for the fact that it often too closely resembles the slinky disco of Beyoncé’s “Blow”. She showcases her range and force on the single “Alone”, a romantic ballad capturing with aplomb the yearning she evoked in a subtle manner back on Devotion. Her strongest display of her booming voice comes on “Hearts”, an aching examination of a broken relationship, where the passion in each note matches the specific pain captured in her words.
Ware has always been a dynamic performer, and Glasshouse displays multiple facets of her approach, albeit some with more success than others. “Your Domino” captures her strengths at upbeat yet subdued electronica, sleekly gliding over an entrancing beat with a playful metaphor. It’s an approach that suits her much more than the Spanish guitars and samba rhythms of the misfire “Selfish Love”, her single co-produced by Cashmere Cat and Benny Blanco. Ware’s soulful melodies allow her to indulge a new side, but the song doesn’t rise to meet her, falling somewhere around a Christina Aguilera or J Lo B-side circa 2002.
Glasshouse has more focus and consistency than Tough Love, but few moments herein match her earlier heights. Ware is best when she imbues her song with personal details, like the call back to Devotion on “First Time”, a slow-burning plea about working in a long-term relationship to recapture that initial spark. On “Thinking About You”, she writes a love song to her child, conveying the guilt she feels when they’re apart. Going all the way back to “Wildest Moments”, Ware’s most memorable songs come from these moments where she portrays intimate emotions that are specific enough to have meaning yet malleable enough for her audience to relate to, like any great pop song.
That’s why the album’s peak comes at the very end with the intensely personal “Sam”, an autobiographical tale of finally marrying her childhood sweetheart and starting a family after spending half their lives together. Backed by Nico Segal’s lonely, haunting trumpet, Ware distills a lifetime of joy and pain into five minutes. Written just before her child was born, the song is structured as a message to her own mother, recognizing her milestone. In just a sentence, “I hope she knows that I found a man far from my father,” she is able to succinctly express the complicated history of her many relationships in a devastating manner.
Though Glasshouse has its fair share of misfires and middling material, it’s never for a lack of vision. Even when songs veer towards the pristine inoffensiveness of a Sam Smith, Ware’s affable personality is largely present. Though she’s still searching for that breakout hit, her strengths have always lied in moments where she operates in her own realm rather than following a trend. Her biggest hit may have been co-opted by a score of reality-show hopefuls, but Glasshouse is a clear indication that the best Jessie Ware songs are the ones that only she can sing.
Essential Tracks: “Alone”, “Hearts”, and “Sam”