From the opening notes of Darren Sylvester's slick, '80s-influenced second album, Off by Heart, it's hard to tell the difference between affected irony and complete dedication to style. The album is so totally immersed in that decade's high-gloss world of pastel-jacketed adult pop that it almost feels designed rather than created. But that's not necessarily a criticism. With only one other album under his belt (2009's Darren Sylvester), Sylvester is largely known as a well-respected visual artist and there is a studied way in which he approaches his music that adds a weird emotional depth to what might otherwise be considered a kind of tribute album. It's not that it doesn't have heart, it's just that the heart isn't where you expect it to be. It's not in the lyrics (which are well-written) or the message (is there one?), but in Sylvester's complete dedication to a specific style, era, and production value. It's his love letter to the decade of smooth synths, mellow guitars, and neon nights. When approached this way, Off by Heart becomes a very personal album. Maintaining complete control, Sylvester played every instrument on the album using just two outside musicians, Biddy Connor and Jojo Petrina (of Magic Silver White), on backing vocals. Of course, he also designed the artwork and directed the video for his single "Don't Do That to Yourself," a throbbing late-night ballad reminiscent of a more sensual take on the Cars' hit "Drive." Other tracks like the cheeky opener "Toni, How Did You Get So Cynical?" echo the feel of Let's Dance-era Bowie or Bryan Ferry's "Slave to Love." While Sylvester's voice ranges from wildly out of tune to acceptably affected, it works well enough with the material and his musicianship throughout is top-notch. As a sort of pop period piece, Off by Heart is a success and, while at first blush it may seem a little too put-on, repeated listens reveal its beauty isn't just skin deep.
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AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger