Jessie Ware released her second album, Tough Love, this week. It’s really good, as is everything she’s ever been involved with. Go get it.
I want to tell you about my favourite bits of the record. They’re a series of very brief moments, lasting less than a second each. Once I’ve told you about it, I’ll put my slightly unorthodox perspective in context.
In the process I will explain:
a) why I don’t care about lyrics;
b) why My Bloody Valentine are the greatest band in the world; and
c) why X Factor has been bad for singers (shooting a fish in a barrel there, perhaps).
Oh, and why Jessie Ware is my favourite singer.
Read on to learn more about my strange musical prejudices.
Jessie Ware has a wonderful voice. It has a natural melody and pitch-perfect purity beyond the scope of anyone else working in pop music today. I could listen to her sing all day, and often have done.
The singing on her new album is as gorgeous as ever, but I want to focus on a slightly unusual aspect of her performance. I love the way she breathes.
Hang on, that sounded weird. Let me explain.
On ‘Cruel’, one of the album highlights, Jessie’s voice is recorded with real intimacy. My favourite parts of the song – and of the entire album – are the clearly audible in-breaths Jessie takes before delivering each line. You hear her, quite distinctly, open her mouth and fill her lungs before unfolding each line.
I love the sound of a singer inhaling in the same way that I love the sound of a guitarist’s wrist and fingers sliding down the neck of their guitar when they change chord. You can hear the slippy, squeaky squelch noise this makes with particular clarity on recordings of acoustic guitars, as well as on electric guitars played with a ringing, bell-like sound.
For a flamboyant example of the former, seek out the first six bars of Nice Dream by Radiohead. For the latter, listen closely between the arpeggios at the start of Scatterbrain by the same group. I’ll return to the subject of Radiohead later.
So why is the sound of a singer breathing, or a guitarist moving his or her hand, worth celebrating? Simply, because (unless someone is going to an awful lot of unnecessary trouble) they prove the presence of a human being in the act of recording a piece of music.
Does that still seem weird? If so, allow me to approach this point from another angle.
Art and artifice
There’s nothing wrong with studio trickery. Most of my favourite records sound completely artificial. For as long as the studio has been recognised as an instrument in itself for generating sound, rather than a mere vehicle for recording live performance, the best music has drawn on the limitless possibilities of technology. And rightly so.
In terms of the human voice, technology has offered rich potential for innovation. This has ranged from quite simple things, like the opportunity to stitch a vocal together from the best bits of numerous takes, to more radical departures, such as the use of auto-tune by the likes of Lil Wayne to transform the voice into a – let’s be honest – stupid robotic noise.
And this is all fine and dandy because a recording is by its very nature different from a personal performance by someone present in the room with you. The modernist responsibility is to recognise and be reflexive about the artifice. Foreground the technology and be comfortable with it.
That’s all fairly uncontroversial, I’m sure. Recorded music is artificial, so musicians are both entitled and obliged to reflect that artifice in their recordings. But let’s consider a problem.
One consequence of this is the pleasant, pitch-corrected smoothness that characterises the singing on almost all records. The voice on most music I hear seems to emerge from an airless place in the middle frequencies, scoured of any grease, grub or grime.
And this is the weird bit: it doesn’t seem to emerge from a human larynx. There is never any evidence of human intervention in the creation of these singing sounds. You don’t hear the crackle of effort from the throat, or sense the tongue and saliva glands working to keep the sound coming.
The impression left by most records is that the singers didn’t have to open or close their mouths, or breathe, at any point in the delivery of their vocals. The singing is just there.
The human voice – especially the female voice – is the most beautiful sound in the world. Why would you record a human being singing, and then try to make it not sound like a human being?
I’m all for artifice in music, so I can understand the Lil Wayne approach. Make the vocal sound as unlike a normal voice as possible. I get that. That’s not the problem. The problem is recording a voice and presenting it as if it was a traditional singing voice, but with none of the actual human bits left in.
Surely we, as listeners, can cope with the sound of a real-life person singing?
Personally, I find the sanitised version of singing on most records a complete turn-off. Which is why I love Jessie Ware.
Jessie Ware’s first album, Devotion, has probably been the most played chez moi in the last couple of years. The music is atmospheric and elegant, but it’s the singing that brings me back to the album again and again.
I daresay the odd vocal was tidied up in the studio, but the overriding impression left on the listener is of a nakedly expressionist singer letting you hear her voice the way it actually comes out of her.
There’s a warmth to her voice that makes me think of caramel, and her vocal palate is full of late-evening chestnuts, ochres, creams and burgundies. As time goes on her delivery becomes less forceful and more secretive – at her best, she sounds like your confidant.
Even better than the vocals on the first album is this performance of its torch song centrepiece, Wildest Moments, in the back of a taxi.
She’s clearly a virtuoso, but what makes Jessie Ware interesting to me is how she engages emotionally with the music she sings over.
She sang a duet called ‘Aaliyah’ on the recent Katy B album, released between her own Devotion and Tough Love. By this stage, Jessie’s voice had become almost pure emotion. She sounds throughout the song as if she’s just about to collapse into floods of hot tears. Her voice is slightly defiant but mostly hurt, her throat gulping down waves of humiliation.
Most importantly, you hear every bruised groan, sigh and moan. And that’s what makes it such a moving performance. It is a performance, because she wasn’t actually upset that day about an ingenue nicking the guy she fancies (one presumes) – but it sounds human because we hear the physical, corporeal aspect of the delivery along with her pretty melody.
Which brings me back to Tough Love. I connect with the music so much more because I can hear a beautiful singing voice that actually sounds like it emerged from a human being.
But why am I bothered about hearing someone making effort noises when I could engage emotionally with the words they sing? Well that’s a whole other story.
Stop making sense
I never hear lyrics. I have a complete tin ear for them. Not in a “There’s a bathroom on the right” mis-heard lyrics sense, although I do have form in that respect. No – I mean that I just don’t listen to them.
I know I’m missing out here, and I’m happy to acknowledge that this aspect of my personality is both a character flaw and an indication of stupidity. But I just can’t make myself listen to what the singer is telling me when I listen to music.
As such, I’ve never been interested in Dylan, or Leonard Cohen. I can’t get into Belle and Sebastian. I only like the Smiths for the tunes. I prefer Lou Reed’s guitar sound to his New York tales. I’m drawn to the Manics by the longing in James’s voice rather than the sad nihilism of Richey’s songs or the wry defeatism of Nicky’s.
Even when I listen to hip hop (and this is really bad), I don’t actually listen to the words. I’m always interested in reading them separately, and the same goes for Morrissey’s lyrics, but when I listen to hip hop I’m not thinking about the message of the song. It’s the richness of Nas’s delivery that brings me back to Illmatic, for example, rather than the (brilliant) rhymes.
For me, music is not a vehicle for verbal communication. Music is about sound.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that my favourite ever group are My Bloody Valentine.
MBV have two singers, Kevin’n’Bilinda. Almost all of their songs have words that are sung by one, other or both of the singers. I have all of their records, and paid considerable sums of money to procure some of them in the days before the internet. I have listened to MBV cumulatively for more time than I prefer to think about.
Despite this, I could if pressed probably recite with confidence the lyrics to two lines of ‘When You Sleep’. Maybe the odd line from the Bilinda songs on Loveless, too. That’s it. From their entire oeuvre. And that’s not me being rubbish at listening to lyrics. That’s all you can make out.
For the uninitiated, the Valentines sound very different from other bands. Their songs usually feature some singing, but in the same way that they also usually feature a bass guitar. Or have a title. The singing is part of the overall effect, but it by no means dominates attention.
MBV have probably inspired more purple prose than any other band. I think the obscurity of the lyrics is part of the reason for this. When music writers and fans can hear the words, the words colour their reaction to the music and shape the way it’s conceptualised and described. It’s political. Or it’s romantic. Or clever. Or rubbish. Or whatever.
You can’t do that with MBV, because it’s practically impossible to decipher a single word they’re singing.
The singing is indistinct, vague, opaque, and deep in the mix. It’s also utterly moving.
Kevin and Bilinda seem to be whispering to each other in a secret code, at 5am, in the next room, after a heavy few hours. It sounds bruised, tumescent, lustful, crushed: the deepest blues and the darkest reds.
And the resulting songs consist mostly of groans, moans, sighs, squeals, grunts and breaths.
Just the way I like it.
To reinforce the point I made earlier, the emotion carried by My Bloody Valentine’s music is enhanced by the impossibility of deciphering the lyrics. There are no distractions. Even the titles of the songs are non-specific and don’t linger in the mind. The emotional resonance derives entirely from the sound of the records.
The experience of listening to New Order is not entirely dissimilar. At least in their early-to-mid period, song titles were not taken from the words of songs, but rather reflected the mood of the music. The lyrics (usually very good) were delivered with a blankness that de-prioritised them.
The emotional impact of the songs derives from the tone of the music – it isn’t drawn from the words or signposted by the character of the singing.
The music of The Verve offers a revealing contrast. The high point of their imperial phase was probably when Drugs Don’t Work got to number one. At the time this was widely viewed – not least by Richard Ashcroft – to be a deeply moving song; he declared it a new urban hymn. Listening back to it now it’s amazing just how inaccurately the credit was applied.
The beauty of the song derives entirely from Nick McCabe’s textural guitar playing, not from the singing.
The singing is terrible – overwrought, attention-seeking, forced. Ashcroft seems on this song to have adopted all of Bono’s bad habits – acting out the supposed emotion of the lyrics, providing semaphore for a stadium audience, trying to sound emotional.
Don’t get me wrong – it sounds technically impressive. There’s plenty of vocal skill, and Ashcroft does have a lovely tone. But he’s straining to persuade the listener that he means it. And, frankly, who cares if he means it? He isn’t singing under oath.
The smudged guitar lines, by contrast, sound like falling tears. Nick McCabe’s guitar playing was so beautiful the best sounds actually hit you in the gut. His rolling chords, rippling arpeggios and stained glass decoration were the best thing about mid-90s guitar music and he’s a much-missed talent in my eyes.
Verve were closely associated with Oasis, and I want to say a few words about Liam Gallagher.
To me, Jessie Ware is the best singer of her type since Liam. Clearly, they sound nothing like each other, but I see them as similar in this sense: they only try to sound like themselves. Liam couldn’t sing in a different tone if he tried – he always sounds like Liam. And he’s incredible.
Going back to my point about people framing the music they listen to in terms of the lyrical content, Oasis acquired a reputation for making stupid music because their lyrics were a bit limited. But this was always ridiculous.
Just listen to the early Oasis records again. Ignore the lyrics; seriously, who cares. Listen to Liam’s singing. He’s delivering stupid rhymes that don’t even make sense, but listen to his voice as he does so. He’s not listening to the words either. He’s responding to the music, to the tone of the song going on around him. And he’s investing all of his desperation, hope, confusion and hedonism into every line, regardless of what the actual words are.
This is why the snobbery around Oasis was totally misjudged. If Noel was trying to publish poetry I could understand the skepticism, but he really wasn’t. He wrote music, and Liam buried all of his emotions into singing the melodies.
Listen to the ache in his voice! And the rip of the throat. And the underrated tunefulness of everything he sang.
Jessie Ware is like that too. But there’s another approach that’s equally worthy of celebration: the self-effacing shapeshifter.
The key names in this category over the last couple of decades are Thom Yorke of Radiohead, and Polly Jean Harvey.
Thom Yorke clearly decided, around the time of 1997’s OK Computer, that he was sick of being such a brilliant singer. So he’s spent the time since then trying to disguise his virtuosity. He could stop the traffic with his falsetto, but he chooses not to (with one glorious exception: the long note in Nude that he gifted us like a Christmas present). He adopts accents and characters and acts like his voice is just another instrument among all the others.
Polly Harvey does the same thing. She seems to have a new voice on every album. (They’re always wonderful.)
But where Thom and Polly use their voice differently to build the distinctive tonal identity of each record, Liam and Jessie leave their vocal imprint like a signature every time they sing. And the latter two singers always leave traces of their presence in the vocal booth. Where Jessie Ware breathes in and out throughout her songs, you practically get a shower from Liam’s saliva glands when you listen to him in full flight.
A singing competition
I appreciate that the idea of music I’m sketching here moves away from the historical idea of the song. I’m not interested in words, so the tradition of music as oral history is neglected.
Equally, I’m arguing that there is something unique about the singing voice that deserves to be preserved through the recording process: specifically, the traces of its own performance. In other words, leave Jessie’s breathing on the record.
I think these points have implications for programmes like X Factor, American Idol or The Voice.
Clearly, these programmes are easy to criticise. There’s no sport in that. But I think my complaint is distinctive enough to be worth articulating.
As veteran watchers of these programmes will confirm, a specific style of singing has emerged that plays well on televised singing competitions. It offends me in two ways.
Firstly, there is a belief in Cowell-land that there should be a match between the lyrical content of a song and its performance by a singer. That is to say, the singer should reflect and convey the emotional ‘story’ when they sing.
I’ve argued that lyrics shouldn’t matter, because the emotional material of the song resides in the music itself. As such, clenching your fist and lifting your eyes to the heavens is nothing more than empty stagecraft when you’re singing something as musically flat as Flying Without Wings. This is singing with your face, not your voice.
Secondly, singers are encouraged to introduce lots of vibrato and melisma to their delivery (that’s the wobbly messing about that they all do to the melody line). It seems to be agreed by all involved that this is not only the highest form of vocal excellence, but also a vehicle for emotion.
There’s nothing difficult about wobbling your singing voice. And there’s certainly no link between melisma and emotional engagement. It’s just a vocal tic.
So the singing competitions that clog up the TV schedules lionise a style of singing based on two types of affectation: affecting emotional connection with lyrics by closing eyes and grimacing, and affecting a wobbly voice. Both of these things signal “soul” to the judges and audience, despite them both being entirely irrelevant to the emotional character of the music the singers are making.
The problem with this is that is leaches into the culture. I live in Glasgow and the city centre is over-run with young buskers who all affect an entirely implausible pseudo-Irish accent in their attempt to sound like Mumford and Sons. And the ones who don’t sound like Mumford instead affect an entirely implausible pseudo-Amy Winehouse jazz voice. These are voices the singers are putting on; there’s no way those are their real accents.
Is this any different from Thom Yorke and PJ Harvey adopting vocal guises on their records? I think it is different. Because Thom and Polly are making an artistic decision to contribute to and reflect the emotional material of their records by pitching their voice in a particular way. You’d still never mistake them for someone else.
Meanwhile, with their minds poisoned by the X Factor-isation of what people expect from a good singer, innocent young people have taken to pretending they sing in a vibrato style they saw on TV. And they shut their eyes and clench their fists and tremble a bit to show how moved they are by the lyrics. And it’s all completely cold, flat and contrived.
What does joy sound like? I think I know. And it doesn’t have any words.
Think about the roar of a football crowd when a goal goes in. A really important goal. They don’t all shout “yes!” – they emit something much more primal. A wordless, instinctive cry.
Or listen to Björk again sometime. She’s brilliant, obviously. You knew that already. And she writes great lyrics as well as great music. But for me the greatest gift she gives us is when she just goes off on one and starts singing without lyrics. Expressing herself. Making noises. Some people used to find it hilarious – remember the Spitting Image puppet, for example – but for me that’s where the magic happens on her records.
Think also of the first time we encountered Alison Goldfrapp, singing on Are We Here? by Orbital and Pumpkin by Tricky. There may be lyrics to those songs but if there are then I’ve never been able to decipher them. Both songs are built on Alison’s abandoned, expressionist singing which packs much more of an emotional punch for the lack of distracting lyrics, through which you might otherwise channel your reaction to the music.
Jessie Ware, by contrast, does sing traditional songs with words and themes that fans of lyrics can fasten onto. She does that better than anyone at the moment, and her new album is packed with great melodies, subtle grooves, delicate soundscapes and classy arrangements. You’d expect nothing less from such a consummate artist.
But for me the magic rests in the gaps in the music; in the deep breaths Jessie takes before releasing her gentle zephyrs of song. In those moments, Tough Love invites real human connection.
All Jessie needs to do now, to fully realise her singing genius, is to untie herself from the expectation that a singer is there to act out the emotions suggested by a song’s lyrics.
You don’t need lyrics, Jessie.
Just sing, and let us feel the joy, the hurt, the anticipation, the emotion in your voice alone – without words to distract us.