[PMR Records; 2012]

Jessie Ware’s beginnings are a bit misleading. I’m probably not alone in first making her acquaintance on UK garage, R&B-leaning producer SBTRKT’s 2010 track “Nervous.” Reportedly, the strength of that cut alone got her signed to her now-home, PMR Records. And she’s since collaborated with other entrenched UK producers like Sampha and Joker. At first, it might be hard to disassociate Ware from the crossover-aspiring garage that’s all but defined her steady rise. But her full-length debut, Devotion, isn’t anywhere near as interested in Londoner aesthetics, despite its “modern” intentioned sensibilities owing a great deal to UK bass’s broader acclimation into a larger pop music landscape. In truth, a couple spins of Devotion is enough to course-correct any first impressions Ware might have left with earlier collaborations.

Devotion wants to be a radio-friendly 2012 pop record in the most unabashed ways. Ware is refreshingly sincere in her approach to capital-letter Pop music. There’s a distinct lack of pop star rhetoric surrounding the album and the young vocalist even comes off as bashful when discussing her talents. The era of pop and R&B the record mines is discussed in the same personal and meaningful, music-first tones someone like AlunaGeorge uses in interviews, but Devotion‘s production has even less of a modern-trend filter. In fact, Devotion‘s number one flaw is in how close it allows itself to stray toward 80s and 90s radio influences at the cost of its distinction. Ware expertly balances the stormy introversion of Sade and the soaring extroversion of Whitney Houston–two of Devotion‘s oft-mentioned touchstones–but not always without veering awfully close to imitation.

The qualm is ultimately minor considering Devotion‘s quality, but on songs like “Still Love Me” and “No To Love” Ware sounds like she’s treading water, outmatched by what she’s supposed to sound like rather than what she does. “No To Love,” the album’s one true misstep, is a slinky hip-hop slow-burn that, by the time the token-feeling rap verse arrives, reads as almost embarrassingly dated. What makes these tracks largely forgivable yet equally odd, is the confidence and diversity that reigns throughout the rest of Devotion. The pair stick out, and “No To Love” especially is a bit of a black hole between a couple significant stretches that could arguably be 2012’s best straight-up pop music.

That’s to say nothing about Devotion‘s highest peaks. “Wildest Moments” is the glaring, alarm-bell obvious winner here. Its lyrics are heart-wrenching and powerfully sentimental, especially the chorus’s cautionary warnings. Its alternately booming and watery production is deliciously atmospheric and rousing, as Ware gives a larger-than-life vocal performance like she’s crawling bodily over mountains. “100%” is the flip-side of “Wildest Moments,” gliding along some downey synths and a clicking chopstick rhythm, Ware’s voice barely rising above a playful whisper before subsiding into a chorus of beautiful, wordless vocals. The title track is a nice quieted nocturnal electro romp, “Nite Light” showcases a full string section, and “Sweet Talk” is an ultra-catchy electro funk number featuring a jagged electric guitar and Ware’s most dexterous vocal performance on the album.

“Taking In Water” might be the only other track to come close to the heights of “Wildest Moments.” Ware delivers some romantic, metaphor-heavy imagery reassuring a partner of her devotion as he scrapes “the bottom of the blue,” before the chorus erupts into another wallop of affecting sentimentality (“I’m taking in water for you, my love”), which is then followed by some spiraling guitar plucks and lush backing vocals. The song demonstrates Ware’s commitment to the sincerity promised in the album title beyond the notion of simple love songs. Some of which we do get. But it’s a conviction that, here and on “Wildest Moments,” coupled with the exacting sentiments on those tracks, becomes transcendental. It’s rare that pop music can deliver and contradict its definers simultaneously. But on Devotion‘s best tracks Ware hits those highs without undermining them with themes of trite escapism. In other words, she could have just stopped at “Baby, in our wildest moments/ We could be the greatest” and we would have sung along in agreement, nary a second thought, but instead she added, “Baby, in our wildest moments/ We could be the worst of all.”

So even if Devotion doesn’t stick a perfect landing, we can take comfort that there’s a genuine talent with a unique outlook on display here. Ware might still be feeling out her surroundings, but considering the results, getting to see that evolution take place is an exciting and exceedingly worthwhile prospect, especially if it means we get song-of-the-year contenders like “Wildest Moments.” We do see flashes of a fully-realized Jessie Ware while nearly everything else is still top tier pop music, but the Englishwoman leaves herself some room to grow. For now, Devotion is one the year’s most promising debuts.