Album Review: Jessie Ware – That! Feels Good!

[Universal; 2023]

The thematic shift that has occurred in Jessie Ware’s music over the 11 years since her acclaimed debut Devotion is evident in the singer-songwriter’s album titles alone. From Tough Love and Glasshouse in the mid-2010s – whose titles suggested hardship and vulnerability – to What’s Your Pleasure? in 2020 and now That! Feels Good! The new album takes the disco-pop formula of Ware’s already-classic 2020 release and turns the dial up to 10, while incorporating an even more eclectic soundscape – including soul and funk. The title of the lead single “Free Yourself” reads as much as an instruction to Ware herself as it does to listeners.

“Free Yourself”, like most of the songs on That! Feels Good!, sees Ware submit herself entirely to the ambience of disco music. Beginning with an ecstatic chorus and only building in intensity from there on out, its stakes feel both impossibly high and non-existent – it sounds about as big and bold as music possibly can, but all it asks of listeners is to have fun (a demand that the song makes very hard to resist). “Pearls” introduces itself more gradually, but quickly reaches similarly ecstatic heights – as Ware reaches her increasingly rarely heard falsetto to encourage listeners to “shake it ‘till the pearls come off”.  

The title track opener is That! Feels Good! at its boldest – a title for which there is no shortage of competition on this joyous LP. Beginning with hushed cries of the title from the likes of Kylie Minogue, Róisín Murphy and Aisling Bea, it soon bursts into a funk epic as Ware promises “I got a something to get you high”. The endlessly unpredictable composition takes on yet more new dimensions in its final leg, when an electrifying guitar line cuts through the mix like a hot knife through butter. This is Ware planting her flag in the ground and making her claim as queen of the disco revival. The best moments of Ware’s fifth album, which abound, more than justify her claim to the throne.

One such moment is “Begin Again” – a rich, luxurious ode to authentic connection in a digitised world. It’s a thrillingly indulgent number, guided by a propulsive beat and featuring instrumentation from all five of the musical instrument families. Part of the song’s charm arises from the sense that Ware could have only attempted and pulled off something this bold at this very point in her career. Ware’s career trajectory feels subversive – countering the expectations and limitations put on female musicians, and instead becoming bolder and more sexually liberated with each passing year. “Begin Again” is a testament to the rich rewards of following your own idiosyncratic path.

In interviews, Ware has spoken of the thrills of finally getting to take What’s Your Pleasure? on tour post-pandemic and seeing it reach a growing audience – specifically of watching drag queens lip-sync to her songs and seeing her LGBTQ+ fans, more widely, emboldened by the communal experience of enjoying the music live. The ways in which this has informed That! Feels Good! is most evident in the one-two punch of “Freak Me Now” and “Shake That Bottle”. The former has been compared by Ware to Mousse T’s “Horny” and features cries of “Bring that party over here / Get that ass on the floor”. The latter, meanwhile, finds Ware doing her best sing-rapping, a la Madonna’s “Vogue”, as she offers punchy, surface level character studies of various men – including one who “still lives with his mother, but he sure could…”, Ware is interrupted by a chorus of shocked gasps. 

Whether That! Feels Good! is Ware’s best LP yet is debatable, and a small number of relatively low-key, grounded moments (“Beautiful People”, “Lightning”) may deny it such a title in the eyes of some fans. Still, the vast majority of Ware’s fifth LP serves as a masterclass in following up a beloved previous album – taking What’s Your Pleasure’s core elements and stretching them into wilder and weirder directions. Now, that feels good.