Lately, I’ve been making a conscious effort to listen to songs and albums outside of my go-to genres (rock, indie rock, classic rock, rock-rock). To that end, I devoured Jessie Ware’s 2020 electro-pop album WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? upon seeing it crop up on not one but two best of the year lists from critics I follow. A few people online described WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? as a “disco” record, which usually would have given me pause; however, I’ve recently discovered that much of the negative attitude towards disco music comes from the fact that disco’s stars were gay and black. I’m not saying everyone who burned disco records in the last 1970s was a homophobic racist, but that certainly factored into some folks thinking. Even if they weren’t 100% aware that this was a reason they “hate” disco. Anyway, that’s probably a post for another time–the bottom line is I felt that despite having grown up in a rock rules/disco drools household, I shouldn’t avoid an album because it’s “disco.”

And frankly, WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? is not a disco album. It’s electronic pop, and yeah, some of the grooves could be used to shake your booty, but I would not call this a “disco” record for the most part. It is very much a throwback album that mixes the disco music of the 1970s with 1980’s electronic/New Wave. I’d never heard of Jessie Ware, so I assumed she was a throwback artist who has been churning out this kind of retro dance music for a while, but upon looking into it, I found that Jessie Ware’s career has been spent crafting perfectly fine, adult-oriented, pop music. I browsed her top tracks on Spotify and none of them not from WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? dip into this chirpy, synthed out sound.

I was around in the ’80s, but I was a kid and spent most of that time listening to the music from the ’60s and ’70s my parents grew up listening to, so my frame of reference here is a bit off. What I’m trying to say is that I only have a vague notion of the artists Jessie is referencing in these songs. “Ooh La La” sounds like a Tom Tom Club song, but that’s probably because I only recently discovered the Tom Tom Club. I recently chatted with my friend Lisa Peers about this record, and she pointed out that the album’s final track, “Remember Where You Are,” bears more than a passing resemblance to a track by The 5th Dimension, “Up, Up and Away.” This was not a song (or band) that I’d encountered before, but upon listening to “Up, Up and Away” I totally hear it. All of this is to say that WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? fascinates me but might bore someone who’s been there and done that when it comes to these genres.

Thematically, WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? is all about being in love and wanting to be with the one (boy) you love. The album opens with “Spotlight” which is about the yearning of being with a lover and not wanting a night to end. “Save a Kiss” and “Adore You” similarly address a lover and are about the desire to be with another person. This primal hunger for love emanates over the record; however, the record careens into darkness as the song’s cuteness gives away to a bit of manic obsession. “Adore You” features a creepy, pulsing beat and the hauntingly repetitive lyrics “I adore you.” Ware’s voice is dipped in a robotic vocal effect that freaked me the fuck out. Sure, we all want to be adored, I guess, but it starts to feel a bit, too much. On “What’s Your Pleasure?” Jessie’s voice alternates between angelically cooing and sexily breathy. This is a woman I want to spend time with. But on “Adore You” she’s essentially chanting “I adore you” and “don’t go.” This is a woman I would be afraid of and would worry that she would kill my daughter’s pet rabbit.

However, this tonal shifting works in the album’s favor because it allows Jessie to really show off her voice. She’s able to take somewhat creepy lyrics and make them sound pleasant (and vice versa). The hooks, for the most part, are fantastic–these are catchy songs. The only exception being “Adore You” which is just her droning “I adore you.” Besides the simplistic nature of that track, my only real complaint about the album is that I think it should have ended with “The Kill.” This track feels like the culmination of the album, wherein the darkness that’s been lurking in the background finally comes to the foreground with Jessie singing, “Don’t kill me with your love.” Instead of letting this dark end cap off the album, WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? ends with the previously mentioned “Remember Where You Are” which sonically veers away from the predominately dark 80’s synths towards the shinny 70’s pop. I considered suggesting this track open the album, which would have sort of worked, but honestly, the track stands out like a sore thumb because it doesn’t stick to the album’s themes of love, yearning, and obsession.

This is an excellent record and gets better each time I sit down and listen to it. I know I love an album when my favorite track keeps shifting, which totally happened with WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? Jessie Ware was not on my radar, but I’m going to follow her career. I’m particularly interested in seeing where she goes from here. I think it would be interesting if she continued to explore more retro sounds, but I’m not sure how long this could be done without getting stale. Give WHAT’S YOUR PLEASURE? a spin and let me know what you think.

HYPNOTIC EYE by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I forget that Tom Petty is dead. Growing up, Petty’s music was all over FM radio, and his videos were in regular rotation on MTV. His music reminds me of late-night car rides down winding backroads and frigid early morning commutes in my dad’s Chevy. I saw Petty live in concert in 1995 and then pretty much quit following his career. The last Petty album I’d bought and listened to was 1999’s ECHO. I remember thinking it was decent for a legacy act. Yes, in 1999, I had written Tom Petty off. And the rest of the world seemed to as well. I didn’t see Petty on TV, and the radio only played the same seven or so hits.

When HYPNOTIC EYE came out, I noticed that it was mainly getting positive reviews, but I was wrapped up in a cross-country move and finding a new job. Then, in January of this year, I scheduled a video chat with my friend and fellow music blogger, Lisa Peers.* Rather than sort of stutter our way through yet another awkward Zoom call, I proposed that we pick an album to discuss. Knowing that Lisa is a huge Tom Petty fan, I let her choose one of his late-period albums. Happily, she chose 2014’s HYPNOTIC EYE.

All I knew before listening to HYPNOTIC EYE was that it was the final Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker album and that critics at the time had hailed it as a “return to form.” My first listen was underwhelming. The songs all seem to fall into the same mid-tempo, and the song hooks weren’t hitting. Had I not needed to digest this record to discuss it with a super-friend properly, I likely would have just written it off. And that would have been a shame because HYPNOTIC EYE is an excellent record.

The chugging “American Dream Plan B” opens the album. It’s a harder, more raw song than I was expecting. There’s a weird vocal effect on Petty’s voice for some of the song, and initially, I was worried this was going to be crutch found all over the album, but this fear proved unfounded. Petty sounds fantastic on HYPNOTIC EYE. Though there isn’t a theme, per se, HYPNOTIC EYE does seem like a meditation on getting older. On “American Dream Plan B” Petty voices his bemusement at his staggering success, while on “Fault Lines” and “Sins of My Youth,” he addresses his failings. This isn’t groundbreaking stuff for a rockers’ late-period album, but Petty puts a nice spin on all these cliches. I like the comparison of a fault line and a personal flaw/fault. The bluesy ditty “Full Grown Boy” features lyrics about both being a “full-grown boy” but a full-grown “changing every day.” And I think that might be the key to understanding why HYPNOTIC EYE turned out to be such a good record–Petty never quit evolving both as an artist and as a man.

I love “Red River,” a witchy-woman track that would fit nicely on FULL MOON FEVER. Likewise, the album closer, “Shadow People,” feels like a song I’ve grown up hearing my whole life. Even in 2014, Petty was still minting classics. I’m also delighted that the final Heartbreakers album has a pot reference (“U Get Me High”). It would have been a shame if Petty’s last dance with the Heartbreakers hadn’t also included Mary Jane. Really, there’s only one dud on the whole album, “Burnt Out Town.” This, the second to last track is basically a parody of blues music with painfully obvious rhyming lyrics. When I chatted with Lisa, I had her guess which track I liked the least; she could easily guess this one. It’s a bad track. Luckily, the album doesn’t close with it, so Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers get to ride off into the sunset on a winner.

Listening to HYPNOTIC EYE in 2021 made miss Tom Petty. After the first few listens, when the songs started to click with me, I couldn’t help but think, “Man, this is great, I can’t wait to hear the next album…” Guys like Tom Petty are so good for so long we take them for granted. I hate that I slept on this record for so long, don’t make the same mistake.

*Lisa is also a novelist