“Spotlight”, the opening track of Jessie Ware’s fourth studio album What’s Your Pleasure?, begins almost like a bedside prayer. Over gentle piano chords and a warm glaze of violins, Ware sings with the longing of a love-struck ingénue wishing on a star. “Tell me when I’ll get more than a dream of you,” she intones sweetly. “‘Cause a dream is just a dream and I don’t wanna sleep tonight.”
The star falls. The strings hold. Then a deep, propulsive synthesizer answers her call and the dream is disturbed.
The next five minutes have Ware burning through the stages of desire. What began as an innocent crush quickly matures into dire obsession: “Blow me a kiss, I’ll catch your breath,” she whispers, greedy for a beating heart. The stakes rise dramatically: In the gospel-tinged bridge, with its reminder that you “can’t keep the sun from rising,” her infatuation is pushed to cosmic extremes.
By the time the song ends, she’s exhausted. “Tell me what it means,” she begs, audibly caught in that circadian limbo where dreams stop making sense. Nobody answers her.
It’s theater, as Ware remarked in the liner notes for Apple Music’s edition of the album. And why shouldn’t such brazen passion be turned into spectacle? This fervent exhibitionism, after all, is a pillar of disco — to which the sound and sensibility of What’s Your Pleasure? pays faithful tribute.
Somehow, despite the shuttered dancehalls and a less than glitter-worthy year, disco has enjoyed a pop music renaissance as of late. Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, Victoria Monét, and Rina Sawayama each countered 2020’s successive ruptures by adapting disco and dance music for the TikTok age. Róisín Murphy released the unimpeachably groovy Róisín Machine — her most nostalgic record to date. Lady Gaga’s return to pop, Chromatica, pulls heavily from disco and 90s house. Kylie Minogue signaled her own comeback to dance by frankly titling her new album Disco. Even BTS, the world’s number-one boy band, diagnosed this “disco overload” in “Dynamite”, their first English-language song and one of the year’s chart-toppers.
And so it wasn’t a surprise that, when the 2021 Grammy nominations were announced in November, our palliative investment in the domestic dancefloor registered in all major categories. Doja Cat, Lipa, BTS, and Gaga will all be floating heads in the March 14 roll call, speckles of starshine in yet another crowd-proofed livestream. But there will be no trophies for Ware. She wasn’t accorded a single nomination.
None of this is particularly shocking. The Grammys are an American popularity contest, and What’s Your Pleasure? was not an American hit, failing to make so much as a ripple on the Billboard 200 (in Ware’s native U.K., the record fared much better, peaking at number three.)
I’ve convinced myself that this stateside disregard wasn’t so much a rejection of Ware’s music as it was of her brand of fantasy. If Grammy nominations are indicated by chart performance, and chart performance suggests mass consensus, then the U.S. seemed to prefer a simpler, more anodyne escape. Americans, after all, lived through a quarantine compounded by racial violence, political unrest, and an anxiety-fueled election. The pop they reached for, mostly recorded pre-pandemic, hallucinated a photonegative — one where no conflict seemed real enough to be of serious import. What’s Your Pleasure? shirks these parameters, careening instead toward matters of decidedly greater, if not altogether tangible, consequence.
I’ve welcomed nearly every song that’s risen from this new dawn of disco with the relief of one who’s been starved of the sun. And yet, most of these tracks seem interested in disco only as an accent. Irresistibly fun as they are, they adhere to the same vaguely-defined style: the production equivalent of an overused Instagram filter. With the exception of Chromatica, which recounts Gaga’s struggles with mental illness, each of the Grammy-nominated releases this year turn to disco for its bright and bubbly bounciness. Apparently the only metric of consideration is a song’s reliability as an endorphin stimulator.
Disco has become a blueprint for pop producers looking to score a happy hit in a landscape dominated by rap and rap-adjacent R&B. The result is a tepid revision of the genre, one that’s been processed through the conventions of early 2010s radio pop: less Giorgio Moroder and more Dr. Luke. If you’ve got an elastic bassline and a synth that sounds like marbles banging down an aluminum air chute, you’ve got a disco bop for the new decade.
Absent from most of these records is the essence of what is perhaps disco’s central ethos: that tonight is the night, the one and only night, and the world could end at the break of dawn. It’s this very feeling of wild abandon that Ware captures so well. In What’s Your Pleasure?, she reframes the impending apocalypse as a force that grants license for unfettered gratification.
Current disco often elides this grand sense of melodrama, which used to be so integral to the genre. Think of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance”, where she fearlessly grasps at her last chance for romance tonight. Or Cher’s “Take Me Home”, where a one-night stand is sublimated into an eternity. And don’t forget ABBA’s “Voulez-Vous”, whose dare — take it now or leave it — distils the frantic hedonism of Studio 54. These songs — all released at the tail-end of the 70s, just before the AIDS crisis — throbbed with an insatiable appetite for the rapidly-expiring moment, an urgency expressed through motion and contact.
What’s Your Pleasure? understands all this. It is exultant in the living body. It is committed to the chase. It is sexy and sex positive. Like the best of fantasies, the story Ware inhabits feels plausible in its implausibility: astoundingly, she conceived it while completely alienated from London’s nightlife.
After giving birth to her second child early in the album’s gestation, Ware recorded in conditions some of her pop peers might call semi-obscure. She was tending to a toddler and a newborn, hosting a food and celebrity podcast with her mom, and making day trips to her producer James Ford’s home, which was within walking distance from her own. This circumscribed existence, preempting quarantine life by months, was fertile ground upon which to build an alternate reality. “I think there is a way of expressing yourself that doesn’t have to be incredibly autobiographical,” she told Complex last spring.
Dreaming from a distance, Ware’s inner world became vivified.
“It just felt like a bit of a fantasia, and a step away from my real life,” she explained in a New York Times profile. “Not because I was miserable in my real life — I love my life and my family. But I’d already said all that on my last record. I wanted instead to be a storyteller of these imagined, heightened moments that maybe I wasn’t being able to take part in.”
This freedom from lived experience is precisely what makes What’s Your Pleasure? so convincing: Fantasies feel more real when they don’t resemble the truth. And because the truth was unthreatening, its flipside became imbued with an ambient tension. In Ware’s worldview, hookups aren’t just carefree dalliances — they bring in tow the gravity of the final climax. History ends tomorrow; might as well end it with a bang. This frisson animates each arrangement, each production choice, each fevered key change. More than her contemporaries, Ware’s disco is charged with a kind of danger. Hers is a dancefloor that demands you risk it all.
Such intensity does nothing to detract from the album’s dream-like aura. Ware’s voice is reverb-drenched and spectral, like she could vanish in the flicker of a strobe light. This timbre lends itself well to the role she slips into, a woman who believes all too lethally in her own mythology. During the sweaty title track Ware is all breath and latex, assured of her ability to please. On “Soul Control” she coolly convinces a dance partner that she’s seen the future and that they could have it all. She channels Indeep’s post-disco camp in “Mirage (Don’t Stop)”, declaring that last night’s party saved her life.
The album’s shimmering centerpiece, “Save A Kiss”, drives this faith in the dancefloor’s redemptive power to its apotheosis. A fizzy sequencer lifts Ware into the air, and a shivering orchestra, arranged by composer Jules Buckley, carries her all the way into the ether. It’s astonishingly tender — all she’s looking for is a kiss goodnight. But even this gesture suspends the weight of eternity in its balance. Ford’s production becomes transcendent: In the chorus, the vocals and strings blossom profusely, a lush velvet devastation.
Actually, so much of the record’s atmosphere is derived from how deftly it incorporates ballroom strings, a key ingredient of disco that’s been criminally underutilized in today’s iterations. Like a soft custard center, the album’s orchestral arrangements are indulgently and lovingly woven into the electronic patchwork. This doesn’t just dial up the romance, it drastically amplifies the high of dancefloor transport. On “Step Into My Life”, an elegant horn break is followed by a sharp string sweep, and as this refrain repeats over and over in the track’s zenith, you feel your body orbiting the next dimension.
It’s ironic that back in the 70s, when most disco tracks still held an élan potent enough to suffuse the dancefloor, none of the dancers knew they were running out of last chances; that an epidemic would soon disrupt the party more permanently than any sunrise could. Today the opposite is true. Disco now exists with an awareness of the world disintegrating around it.
Although, rather than channel this fatalism into anything interesting, most American artists (and the Recording Academy) are content to repress it. As a result, so little of today’s disco feels like fantasy — it is a shiny little contrast world that mimes joy instead of emanating it.
Of course, this is exactly what the American public preferred in a year so surreal as to already be fantastical. Perhaps, navigating the terrors of such unfamiliar terrain, people subconsciously craved a more sedated dreamland, one entirely devoid of drama in both style and content. Virtually every pop critic has pointed out that disco’s resurgence during a year of crisis is no coincidence, but only a few have called attention to how much flair it’s lost on the way back to us. It’s still an escape, as it has always been, but the alternative the mainstream proposes seems to value safety over fulfillment, thereby limiting disco’s radical, life-affirming potential.
What’s Your Pleasure? refuses to cheapen the fantasy by lowering the stakes. It bristles with intrigue. It doesn’t kid itself into ignorance. On February 5, happily impervious to the recently-concluded Grammy voting period, Ware released the album’s closer, “Remember Where You Are” as a single. A feat of sonic and thematic synthesis, it treats the collapse of Saturday night as a kind of eschatology. Haloed in a circle of bodiless backup vocals, Ware announces that “the heart of the city is on fire” — sunrise has finally come, and the world terminates in blazing daylight.
Yet there she stands at the center of it all, eerily calm, beatific even. She and fate have played a fair game. What is regret to her? She has done all her living and she has exhausted each sensation and there is nothing left now but to meet the end with open arms.