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A vinyl of Jessie Ware’s ‘That! Feels Good!’ laid on a light brown surface.  The cover art features a shot of Jessie Ware topless, with pearls hanging down her back and her hair in an up-do with large ringlets.

Listening to the second album in Jessie Ware’s punctuation trilogy That! Feels Good! was a bit of an odd experience, and its predecessor What’s Your Pleasure? was part of the reason why. Now, I really didn’t want this review to just be a comparison between the two albums, and it’s not. But it’s difficult to talk about That! Feels Good! without talking about the album which came before it, is largely responsible for it, and is in many ways an extension of it, in addition to being the bane of its existence.

Just so there is no misunderstanding, I like That! Feels Good!. But here’s where I ultimately fall with it. What’s Your Pleasure? is the better body of work. But the songs on That! Feels Good! which are good, are amazing. That! Feels Good! was always going to have a tough time following up what was easily Jessie’s magnum opus and one of the best albums of 2020; wiping the floor with every other album which tried to do what it did. Yes bitch. Better than Duolingo’s Future Nostalgia and Kylie Minogue’s Disco by a long shot. (Don’t show me the album sales, because I don’t know her). There was an effortlessness in Jessie’s approach to What’s Your Pleasure?, which made it resonate differently to when everybody else chose to go disco. That! Feels Good! takes What’s Your Pleasure? and cranks it up a few notches, and yet somehow it isn’t the better album, when on paper it should be. And there are a couple of reasons why.

A shot from the photoshoot for Jessie Ware’s fifth studio album ‘That! Feels Good!’. Featuring Jessie in a pink silk blouse and her hair down.
Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good! | EMI / Universal Music

That! Feels Good! doesn’t have a bad song on it. As unenthused as I was (and still am) about “Free Yourself” and “Pearls”, I don’t dislike them. But something about the songs on this album cause it to not feel like a whole. That! Feels Good! comes off like a collection of songs as opposed to a realised body of work. And part of why this album doesn’t quite feel whole is because it is helmed by two producers who have the same vision, but present different versions of it. This can absolutely work. But there is a bit of an unfortunate disconnect here.

That! Feels Good! is split between James Ford, who produced pretty much the entirety of What’s Your Pleasure? and Stuart Price, who many know as the man behind Madonna’s oft lauded Confessions on a Dance Floor in 2005 and then Kylie Minogue’s Aphrodite five years later. More recently he also had a hand in Rina Sawayama’s Hold the Girl and that album also fell a little short. So make of this what you will. Whilst should be an ideal ingredient for a Jessie Ware album at this point in her musical journey, Price isn’t quite the special sauce I think many (Jessie included) thought that he would be. At least not on the surface. Because there is something to be said about how Jessie sounds on his songs, and we’ll get to that. I think That! Feels Good! would have been better had Stuart done the whole thing, James had done the whole thing or James provided additional production to Stuart’s songs. But splitting the album between them just doesn’t work here as well as it should have.

From a purely sonics perspective, there is a difference between Price’s songs and Ford’s, which is fine. But the discernible difference which affects the listening experience of the album for me, is that Price’s songs feel greatly undercooked compared to Ford’s. All of Price’s songs tend to hit a level early on and then just stay there until the end. The songs don’t really change or switch up in interesting ways. “Free Yourself”, “Pearls”, “Freak Me Now”, “Lightning” – for each of these songs my note is the same. It’s missing something. Where is the bridge? Where is the middle 8? Where is the breakdown? Where is the shift? Where is the euphoric high? One of the best songs from Price here is “Lightning”, which was so different in vibe to his other offerings that I assumed it was a Ford production at first. But when the song just ended out of nowhere, with no musical changes or flourishes, I knew it had to be a Stuart Price production, because James Ford would never.

A shot from the photoshoot for Jessie Ware’s fifth studio album ‘That! Feels Good!’. Featuring Jessie in a black gown dress and her hair done like a classic star from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good! | EMI / Universal Music

Then you have James Ford’s songs, which are rich and textured. Nothing from Stuart Price manages to soar the way “Begin Again” does. Or feel as luxurious as “These Lips” does. Every one of his songs feels like a story unfolding. Like you’re waltzing through a moment. But they are also the songs which feature the most warmth. And it made me realise that warmth is a key component of all of Jessie Ware’s best songs. “Free Yourself”, “Pearls” and “Freak Me Now” have a coldness and a sharpness about them, which makes them great for radio. It’s not hard to hear why they were each chosen as singles. So I was personally relieved that the third single was “Begin Again”, because it delivered all of the warmth that “Free Yourself” and “Pearls” lacked, amongst other things, and this was before I’d even heard the full album version of the song. This hot and cold flip-flopping contributes to the uneven listening experience; something which could have been fixed by either including a couple of extra songs which fuse the coldness of a Stuart Price production and the warmth of a James Ford production, or having good transitions between the songs. The best dance and disco songs have warmth. Whether they are about getting rid of a man, worldwide hoodies with the mask outside, your cake getting ruined in the rain or how your pussy is the pussiest pussy in all of the land. Warmth plays a huge part in dance and disco music. And when you strip it out, it can make the song difficult to connect with. This is one of the reasons why I didn’t completely fall for Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. It was just too damn cold.

But whilst I have some issues with the slightly uneven experience of That! Feels Good!, I can imagine that some will prefer it over What’s Your Pleasure?, because of the immediacy of songs like “Freak Yourself” and “Freak Me Now”, compared to the far slower burns of “Spotlight” and “Ooh La La” or “Begin Again” and “Hello Love”. That! Feels Good! presenting these straight-shooting pop songs makes complete sense for where Jessie is at in her career right now, because she IS a pop star. But I just wish the Stuart Price songs were massaged a little more, because the hooks on each of them are great and the sounds are great. But they don’t leave me fulfilled the same way “That! Feels Good!”, “Begin Again”, “Hello Love”, “Shake the Bottle” and “These Lips” do.

A shot from the photoshoot for Jessie Ware’s fifth studio album ‘That! Feels Good!’. Featuring Jessie clutching herself, whilst wearing a fitted white lace top.
Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good! | EMI / Universal Music

One of the best things about That! Feels Good! is Jessie herself. She is the glue that manages to hold the album together when the Price and Ford songs aren’t playing nice. She truly has undergone a transformation over the past couple of years. That bold, sexy, dance loving diva who Jessie she was pretending to be on What’s Your Pleasure?, she IS her now. Jessie is living as the pop star she never thought she could be or have the right to be, and it is glorious to witness across this album. One of the shining moments on each of the songs she cut with Stuart Price is that she really comes alive and puts her foot down. She’s so much more outward and expressive on these songs than we’ve ever heard her be before. Even with what Jessie served up for What’s Your Pleasure?, I didn’t expect we’d get a song like “Freak Me Now” on the album that followed. These songs feel a bit truer to Jessie’s social persona and it’s great she’s comfortable enough to show this side of herself in her music. So as much as I may not be in love with “Free Yourself”, “Pearls” and “Freak Me Now”, they do serve a purpose in the grander scheme of things. And Jessie’s delivery on them and the way she inhabits and sells the feeling of these songs is what makes them work enough that I think twice before skipping them. “Free Yourself” does hit in the clubs though.

Whilst I am beyond tired of artists releasing extended mixes (namely because so many of them are terrible and feel like a cheap way of creating more ‘content’ to make up for the initial version of the song being two minutes long) I would definitely be down for Jessie perhaps releasing a dance or non-stop edition of That! Feels Good! which includes extended and slightly reworked versions of “Free Yourself”, “Pearls” and “Freak Me Now”, featuring the peaks the album versions lack. And a Julio Bashmore remix of “Lightning” would go down real nice.

A shot from the photoshoot for Jessie Ware’s fifth studio album ‘That! Feels Good!’. Featuring Jessie in close-up with her hair done like a classic star from the Golden Age of Hollywood, wearing a pearl earring and a feathered dress.
Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good! | EMI / Universal Music

As was the case with What’s Your Pleasure?, Jessie has delivered another album which feels like the turning of a corner. Jessie seems so much more confident expressing her sensuality, sexuality and also stupidity, and I mean this as a compliment. Wholeheartedly. The likes of “Beautiful People” and “Freak Me Now” are so dumb, but endearingly so. You can tell that Jessie had fun writing them and was in a playful mood when she recorded them. And as a fan since the days of Devotion, which featured no hint of silliness, it’s such a joy to see Jessie reach a point in her life and career where she feels she can have fun and express herself in ways through her music that she felt she couldn’t before. Fans who have watched Jessie in interviews or random videos know that she’s fun, a bit silly and that she has a husband who matches her energy. So it’s really cool to see this come through in her music, and this is the charm of That! Feels Good!. It feels like a truer reflection of Jessie than What’s Your Pleasure? did.

And as Jessie continues to give more of herself on songs, this also includes her voice. Jessie had been touring and gigging pretty consistently for the past couple of years leading up to this album and during the production of it, which has done wonders for her confidence and her voice. Jessie really goes for it on this album, hitting notes and singing big in ways that she had teased on previous albums and occasionally during live performances, but seemed afraid of committing to. Here, she’s like ‘Fuck it’ and just lets us have it and she sounds amazing. But it’s not just singing big where Jessie’s voice shines. Even on softer moments there’s a different energy and an assertiveness she has developed. She’s far more playful with where she places her notes and when she does runs. She sings with more texture. Jessie also sounds a lot more forward on songs. She’s still not forward enough in the mix and is chillin’ in the reverb. But whereas on previous albums it felt like Jessie was using the mix to hide in her own songs, here it feels more like a deliberate creative choice. The ways in which Jessie’s vocals are EQ’d and mixed have become a signature of her sound after five albums of it, so I get why she wouldn’t want to just get rid of it. And rightly so. It adds to her sound and she sounds lovely. But I still want her to punch through more on songs. Just a smidge.

A shot from the photoshoot for Jessie Ware’s fifth studio album ‘That! Feels Good!’. Featuring Jessie in a black strap dress, looking away from the camera with a smile.
Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good! | EMI / Universal Music

When I pick That! Feels Good! apart in terms of what it represents for Jessie and how it frames her, it’s great. But when I think about the experience of listening to it and how I feel once the final track ends, it’s less great. Certainly not bad. But not great. But as aforementioned, there are some incredible songs on this album which do A LOT of for it. “Begin Again” is a fucking masterpiece. I sometimes just sit and listen to it with a face like shocked Pikachu, because I can’t believe how good the song is and how everybody ignored it. Album closer “These Lips” is sublime and an instant classic. And yet somehow, because of how they are sequenced on the album and because of the Stuart Price songs, they don’t hit the way in which they should. And this is That! Feels Good! in a nutshell. It should work so much better than it does given what it does and who is involved with it. And I wonder if perhaps it was released a little too hastily. I had reservations when I first peeped the album tracklist and saw it had only ten songs. Then I listened to the album and said ‘Yep. It needed an extra song or two.’ But there is enough on this album to further cement Jessie as a force to be reckoned with and for her to stand shoulder to shoulder with other pop hoes doing their thing and to not feel like an imposter.

Even on an album where I feel it doesn’t completely hold together as a full package, it’s still far better than what others release when they’re in the studio with all five infinity stones. Because one thing Jessie did not do on this album is phone it in. And the same way that What’s Your Pleasure? left me excited as to where Jessie would go next, That! Feels Good! also leaves me excited as to what will come next. Because it’s clear that Jessie is having so much fun unlocking all of her creative doors at this point in her life when she’s finally handed herself the keys, and it feels really good to be able to see and hear the growth. And this is the key thing. That! Feels Good! May not be a better album than What’s Your Pleasure?, but it still exhibits a whole lotta growth and features some amazing songs.

■ Hello Love 🔥
■ Begin Again 🏆
■ Freak Me Now
■ Lightning 🔥
■ These Lips 🏆

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Album Review: Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good!