Greetings, Glancers! We’re deep into the 2022 Heat Wave and yet we’re far behind in our coverage of the best albums of 2020. I’m giving you this shite for free, don’t complain. If you wanted to give me money to get this stuff out sooner, let me know – I like money.
Jessie Ware. Jessie Who, amirite? I’m almost certainly not right, but I have never heard of this person. She made an album that was deemed one of the best of 2020, so she’s clearly better than me. Yet here we are, with me about to destroy her piece of art. Who knows though, maybe it’ll be good. I don’t know what genre Jessie performs in or what this album is, but I’m going to guess it’s more on the pop side than the heavy side, and so far in this series it has been the pop albums I have responded to more positively. Based on the album name, I’m getting cheesy Swing vibes, but factoring in the side eyed resting grump face of the album cover, maybe this is more sexy. Is there a dominatrix vibe here? That would be marginally more enjoyable than some pseudo Sinatra throwback. All in all, I don’t know what this is, but by the time I type the next sentence I’ll have listened to the album multiple times.
What’s Your Pleasure is a throwback party album, peppered with radio friendly unit shifters and floor fillers. Amidst its highs and lows it cribs from a variety of sources – most noticeably 80s superstars like Madonna and Michael Jackson, but further back to the disco era and the more recent synthwave revivals. For me, this is where the album lacks strength; the lack of a unique voice. Out of all of the pop albums I’ve covered in my 2020 posts so far, this has the least to say. It’s not that it doesn’t say anything – it’s simply that we’ve heard it all before, and not only from the artists who have influenced it.
It’s a glossy release, a polished and warm production which raises even the least adventurous idea to attention craving levels. Jessie can sing, her welcoming vocals straddling the line between sultry and distant. There are less irritating quirks in the songwriting, in the performances, and it respectfully ignores much of the distasteful tones, vocal tics, sampling, and subject matter of today’s chart darlings in favour of nostalgic, light-hearted fun. In essence, as a fan of this sort of 80s pop, it’s something which could have made specifically for me, but that unique magical essence which elevates an everyday pop song to a timeless anthem is missing.
As much as the album lacks a unique voice, it treads too familiar ground from song to song. We’ve heard these songs before, and within the album there isn’t much variety. This enhances the overall product’s cohesiveness, but heightens that sense of boredom, that sense that something is missing. The lack of variance pulls down the best songs more than it pulls up the lesser tracks. As a standalone, Save A Kiss is a flawless pop smash, a gloriously exuberant explosion of freedom and joy. Spotlight feels like a logical later born cousin to the darkly toned sythn beats of Baby Be Mine, and as an opener it gets the dance juices flowing. It’s a minute too long, with an unnecessary extended outro which attempts to undo much of the good work of the preceding few minutes. By the time we reach Soul Control – the album’s fourth track, the play is already running somewhat thin.
Outside of the gleaming quasi modern production, the album’s greatest asset is also it’s Achilles heel. The songs work well as standalones, but in sequence they are a bore. It’s not music to listen to as much as to have in the background – at a party you’d be equally well served having someone stand in the next room and bang the wall rhythmically. In the club setting, or driving in the car with the radio on or a random playlist booming, if any one of these songs were to come on you’d be guaranteed a positive response. It’s good time music which doesn’t require much thought or attention, but expose yourself to more than a couple in a row and their sweetness and lack of emotional or creative sustenance will have your reaching for something more substantial.
What’s Your Pleasure is a question easily answered – I’d prefer listening to the artists who influenced it. In one moment a song is aping Michael Jackson, and in the next it’s reminiscent of the people who have made a career off aping MJ – Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, the guy who did that incredibly annoying Happy song. If you enjoy those people, you’re sure to enjoy this too given that it’s more of the same. The pop nostalgia wagon rolls on, trampling creative new voices under its creaking wheels.
In Your Eyes is one five minute slog too many, a dirge of forgotten synth bass loops which would have been better served popping up in an Amiga game, Step Into My Life is a decent chorus enveloped by melodies we cared about forty years earlier, and Read My Lips could have been lifted from Stranger Things if that show had been written by a Rom Com fan rather than a horror one. The Kill would have made a spirited, atmospheric closer had it been the last track and is perhaps the only song on the album which feels like it could grow in my estimation over time into I’d love.
To repeat myself, and further share that I didn’t have as negative an experience with this as my words may suggest – many of the songs are funky and fun and likely pulsating in the live setting. Even the ones I enjoyed least are inoffensive and no single song is less than C Grade quality. Only Save A Kiss comes close to that precious A Grade, leaving us with an album of Bs and Cs – a perfectly above average student who applied themselves as boldly as they could, but couldn’t quite get out of the shadow of their peers, while seemingly not even knowing how to do that.
Sales: 3. I’d be tempted to go with a 2 here based on the information I have. It’s certified Silver in the UK – not Gold, not Platinum, and this is where it sold best. But albums don’t really sell any more unless you’re an Adele or Sheehan. 3 is the absolute cap here.
Chart: 3. Similar to Sales, it did well in the UK – not great, but did reach the Top 5. Elsewhere it charted sporadically. If you want to reward it for a decent UK showing, go with a 3, but in terms of Universal performance it is underwhelming.
Critical: 4. If I was more positive with the previous two categories, I’ll drop a point here. You might want to go with a 5, but I’ll stick with 4. Its acclaim was universal and it obviously featured highly on year end lists, but much of this seems like bandwagon hopping consensus.
Originality: 2. It’s yet another throwback pop album. The original era was stronger, and we’ve had stronger throwbacks.
Influence: 2. It didn’t sell anywhere near enough to be influential, and given the lack of anything new it’s little more than the latest in a very long line of disco nostalgia bait.
Musical Ability: 3. Lets keep it right down the middle – what’s there suits the need.
Lyrics: 2. No single lyric stood out during any of my initial listens, so I had to go out to Google for a read along on a subsequent listen. Disco and club hits, at least first time around, are not known for their lyrics or smarts, but typically the modern approaches place more emphasis on the words to offer a twist. It perhaps says a lot that the opening line references words not being enough. It’s an album which makes its point through its music. You’d be hard pressed to find a single line in the entire album which hasn’t been sung by another artist. You’d be hard pressed to find much in the way of insight with such nuggets as ‘if you’re gonna treat me nice you can love me one time’.
Melody: 3. Does the job for the odd floor filler, but there is nothing immediate or anthemic enough to be considered a new classic.
Emotion: 2. Most of the songs are about sex, dancing, or sex after dancing. It’s not entirely hollow and the pervading emotion is one of fun, naughtiness. If you’re into that, increase the score by a point, but there’s precious here for me to care about.
Lastibility: 3. I don’t doubt that the hits on this album will continue to be played and enjoyed for the next few years – at time of writing we’re two years post release. As pop, and the majority of music, is incredibly disposable, this will be replaced by the next thing very quickly.
Vocals: 3. One of the things which most irks me with respect to vocalists these days, is their similarity. Few singers take a risk or attempt to sound different. Each person has their own tone, but most singers will mimic what is popular. Throw in the copycat inflections and accents and we’re left with a huge pool of voices which you cannot differentiate between. I’m being very generous with a 3 here, especially considering the vocals are largely restrained and there are few peaks of volume, force, emotion, and little shades of colour in between.
Coherence: 4. On of the major positives is that the album holds together well. This also means it’s a slog to get through, but it all fits.
Mood: 3. There isn’t much in the way of differing moods; it’s a party album and it does it well.
Production: 5. Top notch work from all involved, warm and glossy to suit the vibe.
Effort: 3. Sure. It’s a bunch of songs which sound like other songs.
Relationship: 2. Songs designed to be danced to as their primary goal are songs not designed for me. It takes something exceptional to get me on my feet. The lyrics hold no interest for me, and even the overall retro fun time vibe which should hit me in the nostalgic feels instead reminds me of music I’d rather listen to.
Genre Relation: 3. It sounds like any number of recent throwbacks – Dua Lipa, Sia, Gaga – but it isn’t as good as any of those.
Authenticity: 3. I’m sure Jessie and her team really meant it. Unfortunately, five similar albums all saying the same thing were probably released the same week. Your authenticity as an artist can only go so far when you’re in an echo chamber.
Personal: 2. I could go a 3 here, but the more I think about it the more disappointed I become. There are great elements here, some fine ideas and momentary hooks, but the end product falls flat. A handful of the standalone songs I’ll gladly listen to in isolation – there are a couple of bangers – but the majority of the album is forgettable retro pop which doesn’t attempt to stand out from the crowd.
Miscellaneous: 3. My standard score for this increasingly meaningless category.
Total: 58/100. A low to average score for an album I can’t see myself listening to again in its entirety. Outside of a couple of songs, this one didn’t do a lot for me, but once again I’m happily in the minority. Let us know your thoughts in What’s Your Pleasure? in the comments!