Jessie Ware’s first post-lockdown show was Frozen, the musical. During the first number of the beloved Disney film’s stage adaptation, Ware burst into tears. “I just thought, ‘Wow, we've been denied this, and these poor performers haven't been able to do this,’” the British disco artist reminisces over Zoom. “It feels very emotional.” She kindly asks me what my first gig back was: a hometown Waxahatchee tour kickoff in Kansas City. Katie Crutchfield and her band opened with “Oxbow,” and I recall the thrilling sensation when that first note resonated throughout the brisk, nocturnal air. That felt good.
Ware’s fifth album, That! Feels Good!, builds itself on that sensation. It delivers on its namesake oath; it feels good to listen to. Continuing the groovy lineage of its predecessor, 2020’s What’s Your Pleasure?, Ware’s latest, out today (April 28), is chock-full of sinewy basslines, throbbing drums, and lively wordplay. Take the chromatic, syncopated keys of “Begin Again” or the anvil-heavy four-on-the-floor thump that grounds “Freak Me Now.” That sense of fun is palpable throughout the album’s 10 tracks. Ware has never sounded this free, self-assured, and charismatic, which is impressive given that What’s Your Pleasure? abounded with those descriptors.
One of its key distinguishing traits, however, is that you can actually go out dancing to it on release day. What’s Your Pleasure? shared the unfortunate fate of other 2020 albums like Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine, tantalizingly kinetic albums released when lockdowns shuttered clubs and dancing felt like a bygone relic. That! Feels Good! doesn’t suffer from those circumstances. It’s an integral facet of listening to Ware: a purely physical form of expression that yields escapism while enhancing the moment.
“[Dancing] is freedom,” Ware says. “It's individuality but coupled with togetherness and community. There's nothing better than being in a room full of people singing the same song or dancing to the same tune. There's something incredibly powerful in that, energetically and cosmically. It still gives you those goosebumps; it still gives you that moment.”
Her music benefits from the duality of possessing a lot of depth without ever feeling pedantic — simplicity without ever feeling basic. It’s music for club-hopping, not chin-stroking. Don’t overanalyze it. Just enjoy it. As Funkadelic’s enduring maxim goes, free your mind and your ass will follow. That! Feels Good! applies that same ethos. That ebullience is something Ware plans to translate to a live environment, too, where her new record will shine brightest. At the time of our conversation, she has yet to announce the tour (“It is so boring, isn’t it, that you have to hide things”), which she kept in mind while writing new material.
“That's what this record is for,” Ware explains. “It's supposed to be enjoyed live even more. That's where we can have even more fun.” In particular, she’s looking forward to performing “Shake the Bottle” with its call-and-response antics. “It will just be such fun,” she says. “I remember on the last record, ‘Ooh La La’ had this magic where people just shouted at me. That was in my mind when I was writing ‘Shake the Bottle.’”
What’s Your Pleasure? and That! Feels Good! play like sister records. They share plenty of the same characteristics: in-the-pocket rhythms, powerful vocals, and even some core collaborators. Producer James Ford, known for his work with everyone from Depeche Mode to Arctic Monkeys, helmed her previous record alongside songwriters like Clarence Coffee, Jr., Shungudzo, and Danny Parker, all of whom return for the follow-up. This time, though, prolific hitmaker Sarah Hudson and mega-producer Stuart Price are on board. Both names are behind the similarly elastic disco revival of Future Nostalgia.
Through these creative alliances, Ware feels like she’s found her core group of people. “You have these mad intense relationships with people through writing songs,” she muses. “They're like therapy sessions for everyone, and that is such a unique situation to call a workplace. I really cherish it and the new friends that I've made. You kind of just propel into getting to know each other immediately because you're writing a song. It felt easy. And when it feels easy, it feels like fun and games, and that creativity is limitless. That's when I write and work the best.”
Embracing the id is one of the core tenets of That! Feels Good!. When it feels fun, welcome it. Although some may argue that lyrics in dance music are often secondary, the simple mantras they proffer are that much more significant when screamed along to an irresistibly funky groove: “Freak me nooooow!” “Shake it ‘til the pearls fall off!” “Beautiful people are everywhere-evereeeeewhere!” “Pleasure! Is a! Right!”
Instinct rests at the heart of this record, and Ware feels infinitely more confident in her artistic abilities as a result. Like dancing itself, an exercise in not overthinking your actions, in allowing your body to take control, Ware let her guard down. On early releases like her 2012 full-length debut, Devotion, she clung to a sense of mystique, drawing inspiration from the melancholic R&B of Sade and House of Balloons-era Weeknd.
Now, she doesn’t care what people think. She’s upfront about her joy, giving That! Feels Good! an aura of urgency and spontaneity. The songwriting process wasn’t extemporaneous per se, but these songs are so intuitively exuberant that it sounds effortless. Still, the album has a slower edge to it that recalls What’s Your Pleasure? closer “Remember Where You Are,” which married the beauty of a ballad and the panache of a dance-floor banger. “Hello Love,” Ware’s favorite cut on the new album, carries on that legacy. “It's hopefully got a timelessness like I try to have with all my music, but it's romance,” she says. “I hope people have it at their first dance. I wish they’ll walk down the aisle to it. It’s something that I am incredibly proud of.”
Confidence and playfulness permeate That! Feels Good! like crime and violence in a Scorsese film. On the album’s title-track opener, whispered voices from Ware’s friends and family come at you from all angles of the stereo field, uttering the same three-word adage. Moments after, Ware’s voice enters the mix, atop Innervisions-esque keys and sultry horns, amplifying the message loud and clear to make sure you understand it fully. “That! Feels good,” she sings, letting the space between its first two words carry the weight. “Do it again.” When the album loops back into itself, and you hear this phrase just 24 seconds in, you have no choice but to heed her call. Run the album back. Keep the party going. Do it again.