“Just remember: Pleasure is a right!” Jessie Ware shouts on the title track of her new album, which could just as well have served as the tagline for 2020’s revelatory What’s Your Pleasure? The “just remember” is as important as the declaration itself: That! Feels Good! is an emphatic reminder to hold onto the ethos she embraced on that album, part of a wave of pop records firmly rooted in the euphoric possibilities of dance music – a happy coincidence when people most needed it. When the album begins with a chorus of voices breathily intoning its title (including fellow divas Kylie Minogue and Róisín Murphy, who recorded her bit from an airport toilet), it sounds both like an exhilarating introduction and a reaffirmation. Joined by frequent collaborator James Ford as well as producer Stuart Price, whose résumé includes work with everyone from Madonna to Dua Lipa, Ware manages to inhabit that same space without it coming off as a retread. If there’s remembering to be done, she ensures that – like pleasure, and yearning, and movement – it all happens through the body rather than just in the mind.
There’s another declaration on ‘That! Feels Good!’ that Ware, as a celebrated singer-songwriter, is perhaps even more intent on channeling: “Freedom is a sound.” It’s fair to say that What’s Your Pleasure? resurrected her career, but it felt more like she was liberating rather than reinventing herself by returning to her early sound. If there was an element of risk to it, Ware avoids making its follow-up sound too safe by simultaneously doubling down and loosening things up. Part of the freshness comes from the fact that this time, she was able to feed off the energy of a live audience reacting breathlessly to her new songs, which I got to witness during her marvelous set at Primavera Sound 2022. Her decision to explore disco was, in her own words, “purely selfish,” and on That! Feels Good! she not only steps deeper into the dancefloor but a little further outside of herself. “You can come with all your friends, bring everyone,” she beckons on ‘Beautiful People’. You get the sense the party could be taking place anywhere, yet the infectious urgency is all but lost.
The grooves are so absurdly, impeccably good that they seem to warrant a frivolousness Ware is more than happy to deliver. Songs like ‘Free Yourself’ and ‘Pearls’ are the kind of pop gems that would make the trashiest album shine, and it’s true that That! Feels Good! is frontloaded with some of its catchiest singles. But rather than dipping in quality, it almost allows her to get more flirty and ridiculous as the album progresses. The giddy sensuality of ‘Freak Me Now’ is irresistible, as is the cheekily instructive ‘Shake the Bottle’, and the two songs complement each other perfectly even as they draw from different musical reference points. The record closes with ‘These Lips’, whose sultriness is smooth and suggestive in a way that’s more reminiscent of What’s Your Pleasure? There’s enough proof here that if Ware decides to combine more styles rather than commit to a single lane, she could keep pulling it off with confidence.
For the same reasons, it feels like Ware is able to tap into a kind of emotionality that was a bit more measured on What’s Your Pleasure? While the new record gives off the impression the singer is joyously living through others as well as herself, those intertwined needs – to escape and connect – now have deeper grounding. ‘Hello Love’ is a sumptuous ballad that spins a classic pop trope – “What you doing round here, I didn’t expect to see you/ I got both hands up, it feels so good to see you” – into more of a metaphor about getting back in touch with a part of yourself that’s been hidden away for some time. That! Feels Good! surprises and stretches itself out like that. “I work all night/ I do my thing/ Just killing time/ Need a friend,” she sings on the immaculate ‘Begin Again’, her voice reaching higher for the big questions: “Is this my life?/ Beginning or end?/ Can I start again?/ Can we start again?” It sounds more and more like an invitation than an existential conundrum, and with all that new light pouring in, you’d be a fool not to give it a chance.