A lot of has changed since Dev Hynes changed things up, dropped his folky noodling Lightspeed Champion gig and moved to current nom de plume Blood Orange. Two years ago when Coastal Grooves dropped it felt like a weird kind of revolution... Sleazy 80s funk and prince references wedded to fuzzy lo-fi production, indie folk and math rock guitar work all thrown into an awkward, slightly geeky embodiment of wanting to get down and get off.
Since then indie R&B, or Pabst Rhythm & Blues if you read Vice and button your shirts all the way up, has exploded... And subsequently faded a little in lieu of the next big thing. Frank Ocean released the R&B album indie kids felt okay to like, and Miguel finally got some of the props he deserves. Meanwhile a slightly awkward British producer was busy creating one of the most hyped R&B EPs of the past few years on Solange's True, along with Sky Ferreira's Everything Is Embarassing and more recently working with the new old Sugababes, MKS, on their mildly hyped forthcoming material.
Exposure to Solange and the US market in general has clearly had a massive impact on Hynes. Both of True's best moments, the sultry Losing You and the swinging and gloriously titled second track Some Things Never Seem To Fucking Work were both glistening yet original takes on popular R&B. Good modern R&B should feel semi-robotic in my opinion, and here for the first time was Dev Hynes nailing it, yet somehow also breathing plenty of humanity into the sound - the rawness, those Knowles "Ooohs".
This is the album that really lets Dev Hynes fully realise his vision. Often cast as different, having undergone bullying and managed to be alienated by his own (moderately) successful band Test Icicles, Cupid Deluxe is like a lighter held aloft for the outsider in all of us. It's a highly androgynous album and at one point deals directly with the largely homeless LGBT scene in New York on Uncle Ace, named after the nickname given to the ACE subway line where many sleep in lieu of having anywhere else to go… Everything from the promo materials and artwork through to Hynes' own vocal delivery, often set in falsetto, talks to sexual uncertainly and there is a hint of loneliness to this. And yet the main theme of Cupid Deluxe, writ large across the bottom right corner of the cover, is love and longing. Whoever you are and whatever you are into we all have the need to share and be with others.
Lead single Chamakay opens Cupid Deluxe with a level of polish and intensity Coastal Groove simply never reached. The tropical sounding production feels like a widescreen-curtain-up moment as Chairlift's Caroline Polachek drops sensual and emotionally heightened adlibs, the vocal sparring feeling hurt, desperate and bruised... It is hard not to feel caught up in their personal strife, such is the intimacy Hynes and Polachek create, and the playfully melodic bass and sax combo create a distinct 80s passion.
Hynes has managed to make his first album where pretty much every track feels like a single. Never Good Enough has the most gorgeous vocal hook and and boasts just how much his sound has moved on since Coastal Grooves. The jazzy ambience of Chosen feels like a spiritual ascent - your feet might just lift off the air - and the early 90s slink of Clipped On's rap from Despot is instantly catchy and infectious.
Cupid Deluxe is also incredibly deep and self-reverential, almost a concept album... Repeated listens reveal subtle references to other tracks either on the album or Hynes' other work. Was that the chord progression from Losing You on Uncle Ace, or just my imagination? And how did he get to the epicly lush, heavy heartbeat rhythms of closing ballad Time Will Tell, a track that is effectively a remix of It Is What It Is (also on this album). And it throws Coastal Grooves closing track Champagne Close into both Time Will Tell and there again, in the "Baby let me take you home" refrain from Closer. Cupid Deluxe feels almost dreamlike as a result - full of weird connections and references that make listening to it feel like time is being bent back on itself, your consciousness skipping around. Even long forgotten britpop band Mansun get a nod in the form of Always Let U Down, a track that is effectively either an ambitious cover or a remix (or both) of their 2000 release I Can Only Disappoint U.
This is one of the most ambitious and fascinating albums I've heard all year, and yet having lived with it for a week it already feels intense to listen to. Hynes' plays the victim of Cupid rather than his benefactor here - hurt by love rather than rewarded by it. Asking the subject of On The Line whether they are his, the uncertainty regarding the breakdown of a relationship potentially as bad as the break up itself. Hynes' main vocal refrain on Clipped On, a repeated "All I do is think about you, baby" is incessantly nagging yet beautiful, much like the face and memory that you suspect haunt him.
The caring (shared) vocals of It Is What It Is and Time Will Tell are perhaps the most love struck here - unconditionally offering reassurance "Time will tell if you can figure this and work it out, no-one's waiting for you anyway so don't be stressed out...", whilst Hynes' subsequent calls of "Come into my bedroom" seem dragged from his subconscious, betraying his feelings. It is a heartfelt and overwhelming conclusion to a staggering album that manages to feel thoroughly modern whilst speaking loudly to the timelessness of the human condition.