Artist: Sylvan Esso
Album: What Now
In Brief: The duo’s second album features some clever sonic experimentation and the occasional brave lyric. But it too often falls back on the old cliche of making music about making music. And the highlights generally aren’t as strong as they were on the first album.
Sylvan Esso was a surprisingly good find for me back in 2015. I was definitely a latecomer to the electronic duo’s debut album, which was already more than a year old when I first listened to it. But sometimes the artists who fly under your radar, and who you’re not quite sure what to expect from when you do finally get around to listening to them, can be the ones who surprise you the most. Underneath the relatively simple concept of a folk singer pairing with a DJ to make some infectious electropop songs, one could find surprisingly subversive techniques, such as a bit of social commentary on the objectification of women, or startling use of really low bass and polyrhythms. I didn’t know what to expect from Sylvan Esso after that wonderfully strange first record of theirs, but I’d figure they’d continue to kick against expectations of this just as easily as they’d continue to knock line drives right down center field in the form of massively catchy singles.
Sylvan Esso’s second album is appropriately titled What Now. It pretty well represents the trepidation that a lot of artists must feel after breakout success on a debut album, with the mounting pressure to deliver even more good stuff in the same vein with not nearly as much time to pull all of the material together. The tension between wanting to venture into new sonic territory, and wanting to serve up the idiosyncratic bangers that they’ve largely become known for, is well documented on this record, even to the point of a little fourth wall breaking. There are times when I hear an interesting sound collage they’ve put together, or an intriguing sample that almost sounds too sloppy or too organic to work as the backdrop for a tight dance track, and yet it does, and I’m tempted to label this disc a strong example of next-level electronica. And then there are times when the songwriting, bold as it wants to be, seems to fall back on predictable, even repetitive patterns, widening the gap between the really good material and the so-so material that made a few of the tracks on their first album a bit of a hard sell.
And none of that’s to say that I think the duo worked anything less than tirelessly on this album. Nick Sanborn never seems to run out of interesting ideas behind the mixing board, and Amelia Meath‘s combination of innocent folk singer charm with wry, sultry, and occasionally suggestive commentary on the relationship between artist and industry certainly reveals a deeper personality beyond what you might expect upon first hearing her chipper tone of voice. The duo can be a force to be reckoned with when they make a clear effort to not fall back on their own established cliches. But too often on this record, they seem to revert to old habits, and even on a few of the more experimental songs, I feel like there’s a sonic layer or two missing that could really drive the impact home, almost as if they got self-conscious and felt like they were expected to leave an organic moment in the studio completely raw or else someone would question their authenticity. I find myself constantly changing my mind about whether I love this album or find it really difficult to digest, and that makes my feelings about it ultimately come out somewhere in the middle. What Now still shows a lot of promise, but when an artist’s debut is a little more convincing in terms of fully realizing those promises than the follow-up, I have to admit I feel a little bit of concern about their future direction.
The opening track is definitely an interesting experiment. It begins with what sounds like the crackle of a very old record being put on, while a distorted synth melody begins to creep in, that repeats over and over, gradually morphing into the familiar sound of Amelia’s voice. It serves as a mission statement for the record, trying to dig something human out of the outdated electronic equipment they’re using: “I was gonna write a song for you/Gonna sing it out loud/Gonna sing it at such decibels that/All you’ll hear is sound and/All you’ll feel is sound and/All you’ll be is sound.” While I think this is an intriguing way to open the record, since it throws off the listener’s expectations, it repeats enough times over two and a half minutes, without ever bringing in a beat or really putting anything else in the background besides that static crackling noise, that it gets old fast once you recognize the gimmick. I feel like opening with just a brief snippet of this melody, and then reprising it at the end of the album, finally revealing the trick at that point by letting it melt into vocals as a closing statement, might have worked a little better.
2. The Glow
What’s this – acoustic guitar on a Sylvan Esso record? Just in that split second, as I’m trying to process the notion of acoustic instrumentation changing up the duo’s sound in some way, it begins to skip like an old, scratched CD, establishing a rather cleverly sampled backdrop for the song’s rhythm and melody. While jarring at first, this turns out to be one of the most easygoing and melodically satisfying tracks on the album. Amelia’s remembering back to a simpler time when a song by a favorite artist (“The Glow” by The Microphones) gave her comfort, and I’m nothing if not a sucker for shameless nostalgia in song form. The only thing slightly dragging this one down for me is the mention of various names in the verse: “Willy’s so tall/And Avi’s so fair/And Deanna’s so beautiful/Pretending not to care.” I’m guessing these are childhood friends of hers, whose faces she can easily bring to mind when revisiting favorite songs from the era, but since it never really focuses in on any one of them, it’s not clear to me how these people’s personalities affected her. (I know the person “Phil” she mentions as “singing just to me” is a reference to the lead singer of The Microphones, so perhaps these other people could be favorite musicians as well.) Aside from that little quibble, the song is definitely one of my favorites on this album. It’s just so easy to get caught up in its effortless movement, and in the sunny acoustic sounds colliding with the crunchy beat.
3. Die Young
This song walks a very fine line between a simple love song and something much darker, with unfortunate implications if you think too hard about it. The premise is basically that Amelia, perhaps idolizing favorite artists who burned out brightly and were taken from us too soon, always assumed she would die young in some tragic but spectacular accident, but now that she’s met the love of her life, she’s resolved to stick around and wait for him to kick the bucket first. I’m not sure whether to read this as unhealthy or adorable. Songs that try to play up some clever angle on death or suicide often rub me the wrong way, but I think it’s Amelia’s faux-annoyance with this person at giving her a reason to live that sells it: “I had it all planned out before you met me/I had a plan, you ruined it completely”. The group scales back to more of a mid-tempo groove here, giving more space for the gentle beats and the metallic, glittering synths to construct one of the album’s most memorable choruses with very few ingredients necessary. This ended up being the track on the album where both the music and the lyrics resonated with me the most. It doesn’t quite stack up to my favorites on their self-titled album, but it’s darn close.
The lead single from the album is a pretty clever subversion of itself, in that it’s a furiously catchy three-and-a-half minute club banger decrying the industry’s expectation that artists like Sylvan Esso are only good for cranking out furiously catchy three-and-a-half minute club bangers. The beat and the overall mood are darker, and like some of the edgier tracks on the first album, it’s designed for full body movement, as opposed to the lighter, more head-bobbing tendencies of the last few tracks. It’s definitely the catchiest thing on the record, and a good way to get new listeners hooked who are looking for a little intelligence and wit in their electropop. But these lyrics… well, let’s just say that the duo earns their “explicit” tag rather creatively on this one. Amelia’s straight-up comparing the role she’s expected to play as a “slave to the radio” with prostitution, and if the slightly uncomfortable double entendres in the first verse don’t clue you in, the second verse’s brazen first line certainly will: “Now don’t you look good sucking American dick/You’re so surprised they like you, you’re so cute and so quick.” I can’t argue that this analogy isn’t frighteningly accurate, but it’s just detailed enough that I suppose it could be triggering for certain people. (How that worked out when the song actually got played on the radio, I couldn’t tell you, not being a person who tunes into radio stations on the off chance they might actually play something I like.) I’m really torn on this one, as Amelia clearly has a way with words and she drives her point home like I’ve never heard her do before. When it gets to the bridge, the song actually veers away from its more explicit themes and becomes more about a general desperation to make the news and keep a singer in the headlines, which is also scary accurate – nobody seems to expect good music to sell itself these days; you have to have a visual gimmick and you have to be constantly desperate for attention so that some other flash-in-the-pan doesn’t distract people. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I really admire the songwriting and the musicianship, but I acknowledge that this song’s going to have a limited appeal due to its content.
5. Kick Jump Twist
The album falls into a bit of a pattern for the next three tracks where my criticism of it being largely “music about music” comes into play. Not that I’m against a fun, quirky song about showing off your dance moves. The odd collection of bleeps and blurps and squeaks and squawks that pass for a beat here certainly keeps me on my toes as a listener; just trying to figure out how they made these sounds is as fun as listening to them. But after a while, Amelia’s lyrics about a dancer striking various poses for the camera and basically exploiting his or her body to keep the spotlight on them get repetitive. I suppose songs like “Dress” and “H.S.K.T.” on the last album that were about busting a move did this, too, but towards the end, this one really starts to drag for me, which is surprising because I don’t normally feel that way about up-tempo songs with infectious rhythms.
Wow. Seriously, you guys names a song “Song”? I would say that’s the most unimaginative song title ever, but since this one’s about a person being literally embodied as a song, I suppose I’ll let it slide. We’re back to the lighter upbeat side of the band, similar in tone to “The Glow”, with some interesting low-end stuff going on in the background, but really nothing as sonically startling as I’ve heard on Sylvan Esso’s most memorable songs. Amelia’s sings sweetly, making promises that seem to good to be true, as if she’s that enjoyable and memorable of a song that she’ll make all your dreams come true and be better than any human lover. Perhaps I’m exaggerating. But I can’t help but shake that this song’s about the unrealistic promises that pop music often makes to its listeners. And how sometimes, we mistake the true act of falling in love with the simple high we get from life having a really well-placed soundtrack. I love that the duo is exploring the relationship between music and memory on this album, even if the execution in this case gets a bit predictable toward the end.
7. Just Dancing
This is a song where I feel like looking at the subject matter through the lens of music (or rather, dancing to music) might hurt what the song is trying to convey. It sets itself up to be a fun little number about dancing with a stranger, thinking he could be the one, making a move, and then cutting the relationship off just when the sparks are starting to fly, because really it’s all about the thrill of starting the relationship rather than actually being in one. Once the song really gets going with its classic “uhn-tiss-uhn-tiss” club beat, it sure makes the modern-day mating ritual sound like a lot of fun. But I think the song’s meant to illustrate that this is a facade a person puts up for themselves, in an age where we can create an ideal image to use as a dating profile and we sometimes fear people seeing beyond that mask. It’s clever subject matter, though just listening to it and not looking up the artist’s commentary, you might not realize that it’s self-critiquing rather than celebrating this ritual. Where I think the “dancing” theme interferes with the song is that I’m not clear about whether she’s meeting potential partners through a mobile app, or the old-fashioned way out on the dance floor. It kind of muddies the message that the song is trying to convey. Definitely a fun song, though.
It’s interesting how some of the mid-tempo songs on this album are among the most interesting. I generally didn’t feel that way on their first album. This one thankfully departs from the theme of singing about songs to make more of a general analogy between the “signal-to-noise” ratio that is important in broadcasting and the way that taking risks and really getting your heart pumping can help you make sense of an otherwise mundane life. I really like all of the pops, snaps, and other video-game like sounds chewing up the landscape here. It’s not as in-your-face catchy as some of the other tracks on the album, but it’s got its own distinct groove that I find quite enjoyable. I love how Amelia sets the lyrics up to be one big double dog dare to get out of your shell and do something that your brain actually registers as excitement: “Can you catch up to the cars on the highway?/Run them down/Can you throw yourself off of an airplane?/Breath ripped out/While you showboat, while you slow float/While the Earth gets large and loud/Are you breathing now? Here’s the ground.”
9. Slack Jaw
Ugh. Why does Amelia feel the need to include a mostly acapella song on each album? This just isn’t Sylvan Esso’s strong suit. I know she has her roots in the folk group Mountain Man, but they sounded stellar singing acapella because there were multiple voices to layer. Out there all by herself, with Nick providing little but faint beeps in the background in lieu of a rhythm, this song is every bit as much of a boring drag as “Come Down” was on their first album. There’s something interesting in the lyrics, which seem to be about having everything go right in your life and still being too depressed and self-centered to really appreciate it. But with nothing to support Amelia, I have to admit that I’m not enthralled enough by her naked voice alone to really get me through this track.
Sylvan Esso’s more up-tempo songs tend to fly by fast enough that I really notice when they slow it down for a ballad. At just under five minutes, this track isn’t all that long by normal standards, but coming after a song that did this mellow closer no favors as a lead-in, it feels like a bit of a sleepy way to end the album. Amelia is doing a mellow meditation on the power that modern media gives us to rewind and replay a favorite film or song or dance move until we can memorize and mimic every little aspect of it. Musically, this song is a break from Sylvan Esso’s norm due to how it features mostly organic sounds. The percussion at least sounds to me like it could have been played by hands, maybe on bongs or just sticks striking metallic objects, etc. It has a “mellow drum circle” sort of vibe to it, and there’s a little bit of acoustic guitar being plucked to further enforce that “unplugged” sort of feel, even while some syncopated synth notes are layered on top of it. This might have been interesting to me at a slightly faster tempo, but I feel like this song plays out so gently that it doesn’t really get to take advantage of the syncopation in the beat or in Amelia’s vocal delivery. The instrumental bridge goes nowhere, and the chorus repeats itself one too many times, not really doing much of anything climactic as the album gradually sputters out at the end. They could have done better with this one.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Glow $1.50
Die Young $1.75
Kick Jump Twist $1
Just Dancing $1
Slack Jaw –$.25
Amelia Meath: Vocals
Nick Sanborn: All instruments, production
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: