Sylvan Esso is the folktronica project of singer Amelia Meath (Mountain Man) and producer Nick Sanborn (Megafaun). The Durham, N.C. duo’s 2014 self-titled debut album (Partisan Records) carved a space in the crowded folk-pop field with sonics that were delightfully different. Take “Coffee,” for instance, which carries us on fast forward through the seasons, Meath’s voice earnest and weary, Sanborn providing textures of skittering synths and bright chimes.
Sylvan Esso’s much-anticipated sophomore offering, What Now, arrived last Friday (Loma Vista Recordings). The melodies are brighter, the lyrics darker, and the production, bolder. The vocals dip in and out of cross-currents of distortion and deliberately off-kilter electronica. The result – both organic and synthetic, intimate and distant – is an album that invites repeated listens. The first single from the new album, aptly (and wryly) titled “Radio,” encapsulates the ethos of What Now with its dance of opposites. Meath’s frank, warm delivery is nestled up against Sanborn’s latticework of electronica. “Radio” describes the dissonant reality of the indie artist, riding a wave of popularity while acknowledging the reductionist drive of the music industry.
The arrangements here are lithe and propulsive, and there’s a deliberate irony in making a supremely danceable song that decries the hit-making machinery of the industry. And Meath doesn’t pull her punches: “Faking the truth in a new pop song … don’t you wanna sing along?” she challenges, before dropping a line that earned the song its explicit rating. The production itself reveals the unexpected – the song was finished with an old Otari reel-to-reel tape machine. Meath pressed her hand against the spinning wheels and Sanborn knew that was the sound he wanted – fluttering between analog and digital, both assertive and intentionally unsteady. The tensions between seeming opposites in What Now trace their origins to the political and the personal. The album was finished amidst the social upheaval of late 2016, and the songwriting started before the end of Sylvan Esso’s first tour, with its pendulum swings between confidence and self-doubt: The duo started out touring in a Prius and playing small clubs, and seemingly overnight, graduated to theaters and major festivals (“Coffee” now has more than 47 million streams on Spotify). Yet as their press release puts it, the achievements felt more like flickering embers than roaring success.
Rather than letting these countervailing forces pull them off track, Sylvan Esso turned them into a series of fresh songs. The lead track, “Sound,” opens with crackles and grainy pops, recalling a radio not quite tuned to the right frequency. It’s followed by the vulnerable “The Glow,” in which Meath runs through a list of friends and reflects on the aftermath of the show when the music ends and the crowds disperse.
Standout tracks include “Die Young,” an ironic not-quite-love song in which Meath tosses off the line, “I was gonna die young … now I gotta wait for you,” and “Kick Jump Twist.” The latter starts with vocals that are unguarded and adorned only with a minimalist touch of crisp electronic blips. It then builds to a frenetic pace as the song explores the angst of a life lived out on social media (“they all want the invisible eyes on them”). At its height, the web of off-balance synths and drum machine sequences feels perfectly foreboding.
The accompanying video for “Kick Jump Twist” is a stunner. Captured in a dim, desaturated space and shot just two days after the election, the video is devoid of any props save a plastic fold-out chair. Dancer Gary Reagan looks part marionette, part CGI, harnessing the chaos within and without in a beautifully choreographed sequence.
“Slack Jaw” may be the most atmospheric and organic of the tracks. It closes out the album with a captivating vulnerability as Meath queries, “is it a sign or just a landmine, or a feeling roaming free?”
Sylvan Esso’s new album may not necessarily offer the danceable pop of their first release, but its strength is in the way it captures the dissonance of our anxious inner lives and the perfect images we strive to project. It’s an album born from troubled times – and in the Bizarro World that is 2017 America, if you’re not off balance, you’re not paying attention.
- The Glow
- Die Young
- Kick Jump Twist
- Just Dancing
- Slack Jaw
Article: Vivian Wang