Lindsay Ell - heart theory
The official follow up to "The Project" is finally here in the shape of "heart theory", the lower case being intentional, for the albums title is actually picked out in capitals through the titles of the songs. This is a concept album which normally strikes fear into any prospective reviewer, however this time there is a clear vision that we can all share and the album deals with traveling through the seven stages of grief. The songs therefore have been arranged in order to take us on that journey of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance.
It is most definitely a journey and at times that journey will not be easy but we will. like Lindsay emerge from the other end in good shape with this record to guide us on our way.
Before we dive in, we should take as given, Lindsay's guitar playing is par excellence as you would imagine, where a solo graces a song it is both perfectly executed and designed to match the mood.
Shock - "Hits me" is the start of our journey, it is as bright and summery a tune as you could wish for, it finds Lindsay in a surprisingly upbeat mood acknowledging that she "ain't supposed to be going out, I'm supposed to be crying at home, ain't supposed to be having this much fun when i just got my heart broke". It is however a facade able to be put on until the "Hits me" of the title kicks in and the bravado disappears "it pulls me under wonderin' if you miss me". As the tune develops the lyrics shine a light in on how Lindsay is truly feeling "It might look like letting go is easier for me but you can't always believe what you see"
Denial - Two songs in this section "how good" and "i don't lovE you" showing differing aspects of denial in strikingly different tunes. The first "how good" co written with Brandy Clark starts off like a Steve Wonder outtake, there's a whole lot of funk going on at the start!. It finds Lindsay pleading her cause just a little too forcefully "You don't know how good i could love ya" and while the verses are almost subtle attempts at drawing attention to herself the chorus is an explosion of frustration. There's almost a desperation in the bridge as she adopts a third singing style to playfully suggest "We'll never know if we don't give it a try". All of this comes wrapped up in a gloriously upbeat tune
In contrast "i don't lovE you". a big ballad draws out quite possibly the best vocal Lindsay has ever given. It is an area sometimes overlooked due the excellence of her guitar playing, but there is no overlooking this as she hits the heights on the chorus in splendid style. We find her detailing the things she no longer does like going to "open up a bottle with my dinner" or "the restaurant I don't go to anymore". It is a song that anyone who has gone through a break up will associate with, the exuberance of the "Shock" phase is replaced by a Lindsay who has to "pick up a take out and sit at home". That powerful chorus though lays it out "I don't love you anymore but I still miss you sometimes". The pain etched in those final choruses is vividly brought to life and will surely see an arena full of phones lighting up at some point in the near future.
Anger - Three songs in this section starting with "wAnt me back", which introduces a new sound, clipped guitar and a distinctly different Lindsay altogether. The opening vocals are almost sneered with contempt as she spits out "Typical you, always wanting what you can't have, soon as I moved on, started missing me so bad. saying maybe we should try again". Lyrically it is also empowering with the ex partner being firmly put in their place. The song then joyfully details all of the things that they'll be missing out on and just to rub it in recalling a "special weekend out n LA" with the pithy reminder "Think of what we could've been If you'da just tried, cause I think that I'm worth it I thought you were perfect, but you had your time".
"get oveR you" is actually lyrically quite sinister with the ex seemingly still wanting to be in control, wanting to split up but still wanting to be friends, suggesting therapy to get over him, calling to say "We shouldn't talk".
The anger is saved for the chorus, "I know what I want and It used to be you!" and as she later explains "Just cos I loved what we had, don't mean I want it back - if you'd think i'd put myself through that again"
"wrong girl" is the shortest track on the album at just over 2 and half minutes however in that time Lindsay packs in about 5 minutes of lyrics delivering them at super fast speed on the chorus, with just the appropriate amount of vitriol "If you don't think i don't know what i'm worth you are living in the wrong world"! It is once again an empowering lyric with the levels of contempt raised to new heights.
Bargaining - Only one song in this section "body language of a break up" which at first seems to break with narrative of the album as it sees a worldly wise Lindsay analyzing the actions of a couple in a restaurant "I bet you 5 bucks he said something that he can't take back" and observing little gestures that says the relationship is heading downhill. With a chorus of almost 80's power pop vitality this is immensely enjoyable stuff. Come the second verse and Lindsay reels us back in and gets us back on track because the expert on other peoples issues is revealed as someone who could not see the faults in her own, "My friends could see it my Momma warned me"
Depression - Only one song here as well "good on you" and it deals with seeing your ex looking happy when perhaps you are not in such a good place. or as it's put in the opening lines "I thought breaking up would be easier to do, the way we said goodbye was like nobody could lose". The thing most galling to Lindsay is not so much that she's been replaced but just quite how quickly the adjustment to life without her has been made. The mood of the singer is in direct contract to the upbeat easy rhythm of the song which comes with a gorgeous organ sound and just exudes a feel good vibe.
Testing - in case you were wondering During testing a person experiments with different ways to manage their grief - "The oTHEr side" does it via reflection into the past while "gO to" has a vision of how the future will be
With something of a smooth summer feel "The oTHEr side" shows the green shoots of recovery from a bad breakup and finding "the other side of lonely the other side of sad turns out life without you really ain't really all that bad". It is something of a recap of elements from some of the earlier songs now seen in a much happier context, and finds Lindsay admitting she is like her old self only better, she's now "stronger and braver I know what i'm worth". The bitterness in the vocals is no longer there and when she sings "Damn it feels good" there is real joy expressed in those lines.
In contrast "gO to" is very much about visualising what is wanted from a relationship going forward and what most definitely is not. So she won't be "a vodka soda on a Friday night, or "a hey you through a cellphone every once in a while" her sights are set much higher and she is in it a longer term things like "the blue jeans that get better as they get old", quite simply "all I want to be is everything you need". The chorus plays out over swathes of guitars like U2 circa "Where The Streets Have No Name" , it's joyous and it how she sees her future.
Acceptance - The final steps of the journey are perhaps always the hardest and this brings us to the albums most controversial moment "make you" where Lindsay in quite possibly one of the most selfless and honest pieces of writing that you'll ever hear, deals with an incredibly difficult subject, addressing being a survivor of sexual violence. Treading the delicate path between wanting to get a message out there while at the same making a record that people want to listen to, Lindsay has recruited Brandy Clark as co writer and the song goes out as beacon of hope for anyone who has been through similar circumstances, in that they might recognize their own feelings and find solace,
Opening to a gentle piano and the words "13 staring in the mirror you still look so innocent but that was all gone yesterday", it then progresses though the years reflecting on "something that was taken before you could give it away.". Giving the listener an insight into the various stages and feelings that victims of abuse go through, it has all the more resonance coming from someone who really knows. With an impassioned vocal performance as you would imagine, this is a truly great performance on all levels and has been backed up by action in the real world instigated by Lindsay for which she deserves due plaudits.
The album inevitably ends on a high with "ReadY to love", the realisation that the journey is an end and it's time for reflection "After last time I didn't think my heart would ever mend, didn't think I'd let somebody in" let alone be ready to "let my guard down". The verses are noticeably cautious, verse 2 has the line "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't terrified that one day you might say goodbye" but that chorus just explodes with the optimism and joy of once again being "Ready to love again" and is perfect feel good close to the album.
What a journey it has been. With Producer Dann Huff, Lindsay has created something that not only can they can be proud of but the whole Country / Americana genre should be proud to stand up and sing its praises.