Monday, October 13, 2014

album review: 'sweet talker' by jessie j

"This critic would like to begin this review with an acknowledgement that yes, he misinterpreted the song 'I Miss Her' on Jessie J's last record. It is not a song about a troubled same-sex relationship, but instead was about a family member suffering from a mental illness similar to dementia. No, he does not have the slightest idea how he could have messed that up, and he is very grateful to the many, MANY comments that felt the need to correct him on it. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming..."

I honestly wish Jessie J was more famous than she is, at least on this side of the Atlantic. By now she's built an impressive stable of hit singles, most of which I've liked, and yet there's a considerable number of music critics who brand her as a Katy Perry wannabe, especially early on. And to me, it's been interesting to watch their careers in parallel on the changing landscape of the pop charts. Because let's be blunt, as the charts have shifted to more R&B than pop, it has not been a great year for Katy Perry, with 'Dark Horse', her worst single from Prism being the best performer mostly thanks to crossover airplay thanks to Juicy J's awful guest verse. Because in comparison to the arsenal of singles from Teenage Dream, 'Unconditionally', 'Birthday', and 'This Is How We Do' have not really been smash hits, both critically or commercially.

But if anything, Jessie J has fared even worse. I thought Alive was a pretty decent album when I reviewed it last year, with good songwriting and performances but hampered by a lack of focus in instrumentation and production and some really sloppy guest appearances. But I'll be blunt, that record did nothing in North America, with most of the singles and chart success coming in the UK - and there's a reason for that, as the American version of the record was never released. Instead, a new album of material was thrown together in record time, featuring Jessie J's least number of writing credits to date. Now for me, that was grounds for a lot of concern - Jessie J's songwriting was one of the things I liked the most about Alive, and to see even more hands in the process for Sweet Talker was not exactly encouraging. But considering the shared opening single 'Bang Bang' with Ariana Grande has proven to be one of the strongest pop singles of the year, I figured it couldn't be that bad, right?

Well, here's the thing: Sweet Talker by Jessie J could have been a lot worse - but it should have been a lot better. It's a record that from top to bottom feels rushed out to keep Jessie J in the spotlight, from putting 'Bang Bang' on this record even though it was originally on Ariana Grande's album, to the fact that over fifty songwriters worked on this album. And the crazy thing is that while there are small improvements, the vast majority of this album is overshadowed by problems that were present on Alive and haven't been fixed - if anything, they've gotten worse.

So let's start where I began last time, the lyrics. Now I've gone on record saying I like Jessie J's songwriting, in that she has a certain raw sensuality that drives her writing that might lack subtlety but has a certain brazen appeal that can work with her vocals. That's why I had a certain amount of trepidation seeing she only has five writing credits on the standard edition of this album - and you can definitely tell, because the songwriting lacks a fair amount of flavour or interesting subject matter. Sure, I appreciated the confrontational attitude of 'Sweet Talker' that shows her taking the power back on a one night stand, I liked that 'Fire' had the nuance to show the full impact of a relationship flaming out, and I dug how 'Masterpiece' had a pretty solid lyrical cadence that backed up Jessie J as an artist asserting herself... even though she didn't write the song. But most of the songs on this album don't stray far from traditional R&B topics: hookups, troubled relationships, and a few songs that seem to be trying to confront Jessie J's issues with critics that feel a little clumsy. Part of this is the technical songwriting - and look, it feels rushed. Words are repeated or stuttered to fill up space on choruses, the metaphors are incredibly overused, and when the guest verse bringing variety to this album is from 2 Chainz, you've got big problems.

Granted, I get why some songwriters would have difficulty writing for Jessie J because as a vocalist she can have a tendency to over-emote and oversell lyrics, and this is coming from someone who genuinely likes her vocal delivery. But at the same time, outside of a few isolated incidents like the odd warble on the opener 'Ain't Been Done' that reminded me of Kimbra of all people, Jessie J has grown as a vocalist. She's still has moments where she gets pitchy instead of sounding raw, but she's got more control and a little more subtlety, and she's not afraid to show off her potent range. And probably the biggest point in her favour is that she works her ass off, and this can add drama where the songwriting can't.

And I just wish that she had managed to get someone who could have produced for her voice instead of around it, because we now run into the elephant in the room being the production and instrumentation. Now let me stress that with Jessie J's voice, I can see her working reasonably well over the heavier, percussion-heavy beats, and there's definitely more melody and broader instrumentation. Most of the rock elements that cropped up on Alive are gone, replaced by more classical instrumentation like strings, which were a welcome addition to songs like 'Fire' and 'Masterpiece'. But for every good moment like those, you get the klaxon-like synth and heavy percussion of 'Ain't Been Done' that completely doesn't fit with the chorus, or the guitar-driven crescendo on 'Burnin' Up' that transitions into this weedy little handclap-supported vocal melody that's way too weak to support the song. And those are the most egregious examples - I liked the scratchy guitar on 'Personal' that was backed with piano, but then you get a rush of looped pitch-shifted gang vocals and a thick beat that completely overtakes the melody. Or take 'Seal Me With A Kiss', that feels like a modern recreation of a stiff late 80s R&B jam with a really blaring high synth line and De La Soul delivering a verse they could have dropped in their sleep. It doesn't help matters that 'Keep Us Together' comes a few songs later and does exact same vibe with a more prominent piano line and sounds a lot better - it's a simple track, but it's one of the better ones on the album. 

But the biggest problem with this album is production, because if you're looking for an area that feels the most rushed, it's here - because at best it's inconsistent and at worst it's outright crap. The autotune and pitch correction feels plastered on, and it only seems to highlight Jessie J's weaker moments vocally instead of deftly concealing them. The mixes are completely inconsistent when it comes to maintaining any sort of depth or texture, most of which isn't helped by the inclusion of so much extraneous sound that prevents some arguably simple songs from breathing, which shows an odd lack of confidence in the tracks to stand on their own. The most offensive example, however, is 'Loud', a song that completely wastes Lindsey Stirling's great violin work by shoving her to the back of the mix, and when you do hear her, there's no depth to the strings production whatsoever and it sounds painfully thin - which is bizarre considering how good the strings sounded on 'Fire' and 'Masterpiece' until you realize there was not a single common producer among them. And that's indicative of the larger problem - despite Jessie J trying so damn hard to give this album emotional weight, the production completely neuters it.

So in other words, I don't blame Jessie J for why this album is only decent at best. I don't understand why they didn't just take Alive, add a few extra songs - let's take 'Bang Bang', 'Keep Us Together', 'Fire', and 'Masterpiece' - and give it a full US release and a re-release worldwide. Hell, Katy Perry did it with Teenage Dream! As it is, Sweet Talker by Jessie J feels rushed, haphazard, and only held together by the fact that Jessie J is a legitimately strong performer that I do like. But as it is... this record is a light 6/10 and that's being generous. Fans of Jessie J will probably like this - but they'll like it for her, not for everything else.

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