I feel like Lindsay Ell has been the classic example of a major country label having no clue what they have in an artist and therefore completely botching her presentation. More importantly, they have been pushing her in the wrong direction with the music she’s been releasing, specifically her last album The Project felt a bit directionless. With heart theory, it feels like they finally let Ell shine and release the album that feels like her breakout moment. heart theory is an album that finally showcases her at her best.
This is a great pop country album centered around the concept of a breakup and the five stages of grief. I feel like she does really well at nailing the various emotions one goes through in a breakup and her guitar playing is on display throughout, which is important because she’s a damn good guitar player. “Hits me” is an ideal opener, as it’s instantly catchy and carries a surprising amount emotional heft behind it. It reminds me of Lorde’s “Green Light,” in that it’s a song in the “crying in the club” vein. “i don’t lovE you” perfectly captures the unwanted feeling of wanting your ex back, even though you know deep down you don’t love them anymore. The Kane Brown co-write “wAnt me back” is a song I normally wouldn’t enjoy if it was a standalone song, as the arrogance and selfishness of expecting an ex to want you back is annoying. But within a breakup album it fits because this is an emotion that is understandable to feel during a breakup, as it’s a bit of a coping mechanism in the wake of feeling insecure.
“wrong girl” has that unleashed bluesy rock sound that I wish Ell would show off more, as this song just flat out rocks. The frenetic pace of the song is infectious and her label would be wise to make this a single, as I think this sounds like an absolute hit. “body language of a breakup” manages to articulate something that’s only learned after you’ve broken up in a serious relationship and that is the realization that you completely ignore the signs of a breakup before it happens. You get so sucked into the relationship that logic is essentially thrown out the window. And while this may not be the most ear-catching track on the album, it’s accurate psychology greatly aids the overall concept of the album.
The bittersweetness of “good on you” does a great job showing the complicated feelings of watching you ex “win” the breakup and having to accept that while you wish the best for your ex, you wish you didn’t have to see it either. “The oTHEr side” is about coming to the healthy realization that you don’t need an ex to live a happy life and that the relationship doesn’t define who you are. It’s the calming realization that you’re free from emotions that were holding you hostage and being back in control of yourself again. The mellow and smooth sound really aids this emotion and makes for an enjoyable listen too. “gO to” is a solid love song, but it doesn’t feel like it fits the flow of the album and it feels even more out of place when the album’s concluding song feels like it better captures the rediscovery of love.
I can say the same of “make you,” even though it’s an incredibly brave song that the world needs to hear. Written with Brandy Clark, Ell recounts in the song her traumatic experiences of surviving sexual assault and learning how to be a stronger person on the other side of this. It’s such a tragic song that’s unfortunately the reality for so many people and I’m glad that Ell is sharing her story to help other survivors. But I would be lying if I said this just doesn’t fit the rest of the album, just like I said of Dua Lipa’s “Boys Will Be Boys” on Future Nostalgia.
“ReadY to love” is a great conclusion to the album, as Ell has fully moved on from her breakup and is ready to love somebody again. After so much heartbreak throughout the album, it’s good to end the album on an uplifting note and moving forward with a positive attitude, much like one is encouraged do in their own breakup and officially completing the fives stages.
Overall I think Ell mostly nails the concept she’s going for with heart theory, with my biggest complaint of this album being just a bit too long. At the very least I would have trimmed this down to ten songs, possibly even eight (“how good” and “get oveR you” are not bad songs, but feel a bit redundant when there are other songs that cover the same themes better). I’m also not a fan of the all lowercase titles with random capital letters to spell out the album title, as it’s tacky and uncreative. It’s better to let the songs themselves spell out the concept of the album than literally spelling it out in the song titles.
Despite my criticisms though, Lindsay Ell gets a lot right on heart theory and it’s a big step in the right direction for her sound and style. Her guitar playing is great as always and producer Dann Huff, who’s production I haven’t always been a fan of, is actually quite complementary of her strengths and brings a compelling sound that grips me throughout. This album is a great achievement for Ell, as she manages to craft both a fun, yet thought-provoking pop country album in heart theory.