New York R&B singer and producer Amber Mark made her debut in 2017 with 3:33AM, a movingly grief-stricken ode to her dead mother. It was a strikingly personal statement for a first release, and during the recording of her second EP, the bossa-nova-influenced Conexão, she struggled to match its emotional heft. “I was just throwing songs away because they weren’t deep enough or good enough,” she said in an interview at the time.
On her first full-length, Three Dimensions Deep, Mark searches for a way out of her slump, adopting a looser approach to songwriting that prioritizes mood and style as much as sentiment, and emphasizes her versatility as a vocalist. She often sounds invigorated as the record breezes through multiple styles of R&B as well as afropop, house, and funk.
Mark has credited a songwriting camp held by One Direction producer Julian Bunetta with helping her expand her palette. Playing songwriting games with Bunetta and other artists further relieved the pressure to make diaristic songs, a freedom that sustained her as the pandemic derailed the initial release date for her album in 2020. She released over a dozen singles in the lead-up to Three Dimensions Deep, most memorably a soulful cover of Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” and a lush rendition of Sisqó’s “Thong Song.” Most of those loosies are left off the album, but the record retains that sense of exploration and play.
The title refers to the limits of human perception, a theme Mark uses to narrate a new-age journey of self-revelation. Three Dimensions Deep begins with a prayer of sorts. “One” finds the singer plagued by anxiety and doubt, pleading to the sky for guidance. “And I don’t know if I’ll ever succeed/I just want you proud of me up above,” she sings over warm harmonies and a tinny soul sample flecked with horns. Grief still colors her writing, but it’s more open-ended, the firmament embodying hope as well as pain. Mark spends much of the concept album stargazing in this way, her lyrics frequently drawing from celestial imagery, astrophysics, and science fiction in service of making sense of her world.
Initially, this interest in the cosmos is subtext, adding a spiritual element to the the album’s tales of romance and isolation. The disco-tinged “What It Is” presents love as a sublime state that defies comprehension and dissolves boundaries, Mark’s harmonies and melodies coalescing as she loses herself in the rapture of passion. When a breakup causes her to crash land, her awareness of her body and personal space sharpens. “I know my body better/The curves and lines,” she sings on breathy kiss-off “Turning Pages.” On “Healing Hurts,” she cleverly evokes the false comfort of deleting all traces of an ex: “Out my phone/But you’re still inside this heart you broke.” In these moments, space is modular and relational, defined by proximity and distance, tension and strain.
Unfortunately, her shapeshifting gets short-circuited by hamfisted writing, especially as the album’s space theme gets less playful and more literal. The first half of the record is a romp, Mark swinging from ballads (“Most Men”) to hip house (“FOMO) to retro funk (“Foreign Things”). But past the midway point, it slinks into a suite of cosmic clunkers, her astronomical metaphors growing one-dimensional and forced as she sings over frictionless, ethereal beats.
“Darkside,” a bland Prince pastiche, is the album’s nadir. “Your vibrations got me shaking/Big Bang-making type of high/Your astronomical kiss/Constellations shoot sensations through me to the sky,” Mark sings. Impressively, it gets worse. “But then the force is strong when I’m skywalking by your solar system,” she says later in the song, a line that would make even George Lucas blush. The album does circle back to Earth, and the dance floor, for its final stretch. But it closes with “Event Horizon,” another return to the parched well of cosmic imagery. It’s a disappointment because the thrill of cosmic R&B is the way it folds space, forging connections between the mundane and the empyrean, the flesh and the spirit. Mark’s universe, by contrast, just feels empty.