Confessional lyricism is not in short supply among bands that fall under the broad umbrella of U.S. indie rock, but lush, beat-driven pop songs that draw influence from chart-friendly acts generally are, which explains why Bradley Hale - aka Sombear - felt the need to step away from his day job in order to get his fix of both at once.
As sticksman for Minneapolis trio Now, Now, he's used to taking his cues from more common indie stock; there's touches of Tokyo Police Club, Paramore and Death Cab for Cutie to last year's superb Threads, which fittingly was released through Chris Walla's Trans-Records. On Love You in the Dark, though, Hale - who is on record as an admirer of the more commercially-viable likes of Britney Spears and nSYNC - is free to explore considerably poppier territory.
Despite the decidedly Nineties influences cited above, this record largely plays like a paean to the Eighties pop sound, scored through with constant nods to New Wave. It's not that there aren't tracks on here that are a genuinely neat fit for mainstream radio - the title track, in particular, has a smart hook and a punchy chorus, although it might need to be stripped of some its more esoteric instrumental choices first. It's more that Hale's talk of the pop stars he grew up with doesn't really do justice to an album that is replete with complex sonic choices and disarmingly personal subject matter.
It's actually an interesting niche that he's carved out for himself; there's no lack of highly stylised, glossily-produced records that toe the line between pop and R&B out there, but few of them are as emotionally forthright as Love You in the Dark. Washed Out-esque opener 'Incredibly Still' marries joyous, twinkling synths with a purposeful, slightly off-kilter beat; the percussive choices on this record are consistent in their excellence, with Hale carrying over his idiosyncratic style of drumming from Now, Now. The record's beats ensure that there's always something to fall back on where other instrumental decisions prove failures; 'The Way We Are' makes jarringly blunt use of a monotonous electric guitar, whilst the unusual vocal distortion on 'Never Say Baby' - otherwise the album's closest brush with out-and-out chart pop - is outweighed by the lively beat's constant shape-shifting.
It's difficult to know whether the (largely appropriate) lack of verbal complexity is down to Hale's own limited lyrical ability or merely a desire to keep things as pithy as possible. Perhaps they were intended to be relatively unobtrusive, with the record's sonic textures the main attraction, but where he gets it right, they serve to subtly amplify the tone. There would already be atmosphere in abundance on an instrumental version of '2002', but a nervy vocal turn - "there's a chance we won't get through / let me go instead of you" - provides some nice punctuation. Where there attempts at metaphor, they're generally pretty clunky - take, for example, "kill the trees / flood the sea / it could be good for us for all we know" on 'The Good'.
You've got plenty of choices if you're looking for a hazy electronic pop record this year, but there's a real beating heart to Love You in the Dark that grabbed me like no other LP of the same ilk has in 2013. It seems to come from a very genuine place; the sound of a young songwriter learning how to shape a bunch of catchy pop songs to fit a musical mould that's different to what he's used to, but that might very well represent him more accurately than his work with Now, Now does.