By Marci Cohen, Assistant Head, Music Library, Boston University
Ready for escapist hits for the summer? British singer Jessie Ware has the answer with That! Feels Good!, a collection of odes to pleasure heavily steeped in disco aesthetics. A Top 10 mainstay in her native U.K., Ware has had a lower profile in the U.S. She got her start providing guest vocals for electronic producer SBTRKT and others, and then backing vocal work with Florence & the Machine before embarking on a solo career. She has written songs for herself and others. Operating in the R&B/dance realm, Ware broke through with her 2012 debut Devotion, and was soon collaborating with the likes of Ed Sheeran and Kylie Minogue as a singer and songwriter. That! Feels Good! is her fifth album, a follow-up to 2020’s What’s Your Pleasure? (The woman clearly likes her punctuation.)
Ware also has a successful sideline. She and her mother Lennie are the cohosts of the podcast Table Manners, where they interview musicians and other notable figures, including Paul McCartney and London mayor Sadiq Khan, over home-cooked dinner, usually in Ware’s own home. Launched in 2017, the podcast is now in its 15th season, has had 13 million listeners, and spawned a cookbook.
But back to that disco throwback. Although the genre was disparaged and the term tainted by the start of the 1980s, four-on-the-floor dance music never went away. It has now been acknowledged that the disco backlash, which infamously peaked with Disco Demolition Night at a 1979 Chicago White Sox game, was a reaction by straight white men who felt threatened by the popularity of music that was not primarily by and for them. The Bee Gees and John Travola’s Tony Manero from Saturday Night Fever were the most public faces of disco by the late 1970s, but the music’s origins were in the gay, Black and Latino communities, and female singers are a mainstay of the genre. Donna Summer was the queen of disco, but no one was crowned the king.
Although dance music has stuck around, the instrumentation has changed. Madonna’s early dance hits from her 1983 debut were synthesizer-driven, but a distinctive element of 1970s dance music was the acoustic instrumentation. Barry White was backed by his 40-piece Love Unlimited Orchestra, and the string section was one of the defining sounds of Philly Soul arrangements. Horn sections were also prevalent; dancefloor filler “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire has transcended the disco tag, but the band’s tight arrangements with prominent use of horns were grounded in funk. All these elements are present on That! Feels Good! but it doesn’t end there. Dance music continued to evolve. For example, Manchester, England spawned the Madchester movement of the late 1980s-early 1990s, dance music made primarily by straight white men (New Order, Happy Mondays, et al.) that incorporated traditional rock instrumentation, including electric guitars and traditional drum set rather than or in addition to synthesized drum machines. Techno emerged around the same time, often following the formula of a powerhouse female vocalist paired with faceless studio whizzes twiddling the electronic knobs, not so far removed from Donna Summer’s work with Giorgio Moroder a decade or so earlier. Think “The Power” by SNAP and “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now” by C+C Music Factory. And that later dance sound also turns up on That! Feels Good!
Ware taps into that full history of dance music with verve and fizz. The opening title track features an electric guitar weaving in and around, a funky sax line turns up late in the song, and a whole horn section punctuates the rhythm. “Begin Again” shows off Ware’s great set of pipes and a full horn arrangement. But “Freak Me Now” skews electronic with its studio-processed vocals and synthesizer accents driving the beat. “Lightning” has Ware cooing rather than belting, a late night track for the chill out room. “Hello Love,” a ‘70s throwback, is another slower number with swelling strings and smooth horns. The piano-driven “Free Yourself” has an early-’90s vibe. The arrangement for “Beautiful People” draws slight influence from salsa, anchored on a clave rhythm and cranking up the horn-filled beat. The orchestra swells on “These Lips.”
The album is pro-pleasure but only in the vaguest terms. The mentions of cocktails and champagne don’t encourage excess. The hedonism only hints at sex, but Ware comes at it from all angles. “Pleasure is a right,” Ware declares on the title track. She sings about doing “it” and that it feels good, but never defines “it.” She asserts “These two lips can do so much more,” without getting into the specifics of their capabilities. “Shake the Bottle” notably skirts an obscenity, avoiding rhyming with “truck,” and trades in euphemisms and metaphors. “Free Yourself” is an anthem of elation and self-actualization. In announcing “Beautiful people are everywhere, everywhere” Ware advocates inclusivity and self-acceptance on a track suitable for Pride Month celebration, especially because it acknowledges shedding the loneliness of the past. Musically resembling Chaka Khan’s disco-era hit “I’m Every Woman,” “Pearls” has Ware urging listeners to “shake it ‘til the pearls fall off,” a more original enticement than the cliches of throwing your hands in the air, waving them like you just to don’t care. The driving beat and Ware’s soaring vocals encourage dancers to do just that.
That! Feels Good! is sensuous rather than salacious. It’s not just the sophisticated arrangements that make this music you can play with your parents in the car. Ware makes music for grown-ups, albeit ones who still crave a night on the town even if that entails lining up a babysitter. Not unlike Beyonce’s most recent album Renaissance that found bliss on the dancefloor, Ware’s album reflects the zeitgeist. It sheds the anger, sadness, fear and other negative emotions as we leave the worst of COVID behind and seek a soundtrack to any reason to celebrate. By invoking musical memories of the ‘70s, it forms a bookend to the carefree years before AIDS.