The universe has a pretty wry sense of humour, which may explain why the disco revival of 2020 hit the charts just as the covid-19 pandemic locked down the world’s dance floors. The holy trinity of this revival—Jessie Ware’s Giorgio Moroder-and-mirror-balls epic What’s Your Pleasure?, Dua Lipa’s sexed-up-funk opus Future Nostalgia and Kylie Minogue’s escapist Disco—were joyfully hedonistic albums but they all carried an undercurrent of melancholia, a reminder that there was something to escape from. It was the perfect soundtrack to the bittersweet experience of boogie-ing in one’s kitchen or bathroom, dance music for a year without dance floors.
Two years on, the pandemic has receded but there are plenty of other crises on our plates—the attacks on abortion and trans rights in the US, rising police violence, global authoritarianism’s digital makeover, economic downwinds. In joyless times like these, the radical potential of pleasure and desire—disco’s central message—has found more and more takers. Disco-inspired or disco-adjacent records by Beyoncé, The Weeknd and Lizzo have dominated the dance floor in the last couple of years, fuelling sweaty, delirious club nights where patrons danced away the pain. In Jessie Ware’s deliciously lush new record, That! Feels Good!, this revivalist movement has now found its magnum opus.
The British singer and songwriter’s roots lie in dance music, particularly the drum-and-bass club nights of her teens, and her early releases earned her critical acclaim for their minimalist club-meets-soul aesthetic. With success came studio polish and commercial pressures and her 2017 album, Glasshouse, dropped the club sounds for safe, stolid pop-R&B about love and motherhood. The record debuted at No.7 in the UK and was reviewed favourably but Ware was increasingly disenchanted with both the new sound and the music industry, particularly the pressure to “be the next Adele”, as she puts it.
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So she fired her management team, reoriented towards the club and focused on producing maximalist disco-soul-funk confections that bounce with the unrestrained joy of self-confidence and liberation. 2020’s What’s Your Pleasure? conjured up a Studio 54 party fantasy, all sex, dance and Hi-NRG, reflecting a more self-assured, cheeky and camp-friendly side of the artist. That! Feels Good! takes that record’s advocacy of pleasure and elevates it to a political manifesto, exhorting us to find freedom under the mirror-ball.
The eponymous opener starts with a star cast of Ware’s friends whispering “That feels good” before Ware comes in with the militant commandment: “Freedom is a sound, and pleasure is a right. Do it again.” Free Yourself is a Donna Summer-esque bop about letting go and finding yourself on the dance floor, with Ware playfully referencing the soul and pop divas she’s channelling in her vocals. Meanwhile, Beautiful People is a Pride-ready queer anthem about the dance floor as a safe space, particularly timely in its invocation of drag and vogue scenes that are under tremendous political attack.
Elsewhere, the record oozes playful sexual energy, often with a hint of camp. “Shake it till the pearls fall off,” she sings on Pearls, while Shake It Off’s icy-cool Grace Jones put-downs are punctuated by cheeky exhortations to make her “bottle pop”. This is not the choreographed peacockery of teenage pop idols, catering to the gaze of horny teenagers. Ware is a 38-year-old mother of three and this is the sound of sexual authority, self-confidence and the hard-earned right to pleasure.
Ware’s voice has always been one to contend with and she puts it to good use on the record, channelling soul/R&B forebears, including Chaka Khan, Donna Summer and Madonna. She switches between operatic arias, soulful croon and P-funk proto-rap, her voice weaving a glamorous 1970s wonderland in tandem with the taut, crisp punk of the eight-piece Afrobeat band Kokoroko, James Ford’s Motown-meets-Chic production and guest contributions from Madonna’s hit-maker, Stuart Price. The music is reverential and faithful to its 1970s forebears without being derivative, injecting fresh energy into a 50-year-old sound.
Ware is well aware of that long history, helped by her legions of queer fans. Disco first emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s out of queer-friendly black and brown clubs in New York, at a time of rising racism and homophobia (a pathway that Chicago house and Detroit techno would also follow to the mainstream). Philly Soul and other black music scenes also had an influence but long after disco had gone mainstream and taken over radio, it retained that focus on the individual and that belief in the dance floor as escapist fantasy.
Over-saturation eventually led to a strong backlash from rock fans and by the early 1980s, “disco” had become a taboo word. But the genre continued to influence pop and dance music through the decades, its sound forming the bedrock of modern pop even if the name itself was never mentioned. Now, artists as varied as Dua Lipa, Drake and Doja Cat are excavating that history—no longer obscured by the bitter diatribes of rockists—as source material for a new vision of radical joy on the dance floor.
Nowhere has that vision been articulated as vividly and coherently as in That! Feels Good! The world may be going to hell in a basket, your personal and professional life may be in shambles, the state may be targeting you for your identity. You may wake up every morning and ask yourself, as Ware does in Beautiful People, “What am I doing on this planet? Goddamn!” Ware’s—and the record’s—delightfully insouciant answer is to hit the dance floor and freak out. “Put the day on ice, pour a cocktail,” she belts. “Mix your joy with misery (so sweet).”
Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.
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