The Politics of Pleasure in Jessie Ware’s That! Feels Good!
Issue 15, Volume 113
By Benson Chen
Jessie Ware’s sudden turn from the subdued sectors of soul and R&B balladry into the rambunctious, fiery pop-disco of her 2020 album What’s Your Pleasure? caused a renaissance in her career, breathing a newfound life and vibrancy into her work. In an interview with music critic Anthony Fantano, Ware revealed that What’s Your Pleasure? was created with the “final-album mentality;” Ware planned to go out with a bang. After the success of her “Table Manners” podcast with her mother, Lennie Ware, Jessie Ware felt a newfound freedom to create the type of music she wanted to. As she stated in a 2020 interview with The Guardian, “Music was my bread and butter. Now it isn’t, not entirely—which has made it more enjoyable.” After the success and critical acclaim of What’s Your Pleasure?, Ware has returned with her fifth studio album, That! Feels Good!, a rowdy continuation of the retro-extravagance set by its sleek predecessor. If What’s Your Pleasure? was the enigmatic and polished entrance into the club, That! Feels Good! is the sweaty, unrestrained, dance floor-fever climax of the night.
The album’s lead single, “Free Yourself,” was released in the summer of 2022, coinciding with the return to normalcy amidst the seemingly never-ending devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic. The track, despite being a generic pop song on the surface, saves itself from feeling uninspired through the masterful application of its ballroom influences and its deep lyrical territory. The track’s bridge plunges into a piano-led breakdown complete with vocal chops, a closing that shows the cinematic way Ware infuses modern-day genres, such as house, with ‘70s influences like Donna Summer and Boney M. Ware empowers the queer community through her rapturous affirmations, preaching, “Don’t you hide undercover.” The album’s title track features similar affirmations, providing a feel-good embrace amidst the chaos of today’s constant queer and racial discrimination. These current injustices are akin to those of the time period Ware pulls her influences from; she cries, “Everybody gets a little modest and shy sometimes / Just remember, pleasure is a right!” As Ware stated in an interview with GayTimes, “The loyalty, the devotion and enthusiasm [toward] me has made the [LGBTQ+] community so important…this album was a form of a thank you to the community… to be able to have that safe space where we can dance, feel free and express yourself.” Ware has clearly done her due diligence as an ally, whether it be through constant nods to black disco legends like Grace Jones and Fern Kinney or platforming trans activist Munroe Bergdorf amidst her L’Oreal controversy in 2020. “I have a platform that’s not as big as other people’s, but it’s a platform, and I owe it to these people to be able to share their stories,” Ware explained in the same interview.
While the sleek, nocturnal production that spotlit her breathy vocals on What’s Your Pleasure? did not exhibit the full breadth of Ware’s vocal prowess, That! Feels Good! allows the full, eclectic array of those capabilities to shine. Her high range takes center stage on the third song, “Pearls,” an encomium reveling in the bliss of dance. The song features a wide net of melodies and choruses culminating in a high note that soars above the lalala chants on the bridge. “Hello Love” sees a return to her feathery and husky vocals, as she sings of surrendering to the love she personifies, all accentuated by the track’s slick drums and lilting trumpets. There are some spoken pieces on the album as well, such as on the chorus of “Shake the Bottle,” where Ware uses her voice percussively, cheekily hitting each syllable on “shake it.”
“Begin Again” is the album’s grand thematic centerpiece, revolving around Ware’s thesis on the current impersonality of love. It begins with Bossa Nova drums that march along descending chords, resembling the unraveling of Ware’s psyche as she pleads to the void, repeatedly asking, “Why does all the purest love get filtered through machines?” and chanting “Can we begin again?” Despite the thematic richness of “Begin Again,” the song represents a key shortcoming of the album: the sequencing gives the listener too much, too soon. Ware explained that she wanted the album to begin with a punch to capture listeners’ attention but does so by concentrating the first half of the album with singles. The unrelieved, explosive pacing that comes as a result makes the latter half of the LP (long play) comparatively weaker.
That! Feels Good! is not the sequel album to What’s Your Pleasure?; it is a triumphant dance sequence that plays as the credits roll. It does not explore any new ground in its lyricism, but its exuberant and syncopated production provides a subtle distinction from the sleek and dressed-up glamor of What’s Your Pleasure?. It is Ware’s much-deserved victory lap after the 2020 release’s successful reinvention and revival of her passion for music.