Sylvan Esso - What Now
To quote Samuel Beckett, “but do we mean indie pop when we say indie pop?”
Okay, I’m paraphrasing. But Beckett’s assertion rings as true for that most common and abstract of genre boundaries as it did for Beckett’s original obsession – love. To be fair, the Durham, NC based Sylvan Esso have always had a relationship with pop music that could be best defined as “it’s complicated”. Comprised of lead singer Amelia Meath, who toured with Feist as part of Mountain Man, and Nick Sanborn of folk-rock group Megafaun, there were flashes on their 2014 debut album of a band bursting with the creativity and verve to subvert traditional pop structures from within. On “Hey Mami”, the lead single from that album, Meath’s lyrics used the female gaze to untangle implicit assumptions about the experience of catcalling and managed it all while mustering a peculiar alchemy between Appalachian folk melody and bargain-bin Purity Ring B-side. It was catchy and disconcerting, even if the entire project couldn’t quite maintain that level of subversion. Follow-up album What Now still finds them in search of that mercurial balance between populist and avant, but leaves enough breadcrumbs to make that journey wholly worthwhile.
Sylvan Esso have always been candid about their desire to craft an approach that was radio-friendly and catchy, but album opener “Sound” begins on a decidedly left-field note. Crackling to life with what Meath called in her April, 28 All Songs Considered interview, “makeshift reverse-auto-tune”, strands of St. Vincent hum as voice and machine combine to create a sensory palette cleanser. It’s weird, haunting, and suggests the power of dance music, and by extension its twin tools of voice and synthesizer, to create worlds outside of everyday imagination. Similarly, the chopped chord that opens breezy follow-up “The Glow”, itself a reference to the 2001 experimental rock album by The Microphones, is a potent reminder of the balance between Meath’s nostalgic folk exultations and producer Sanborn’s ear for lush textures. It may sound warm and organic, but there’s a machine heart beating deep beneath each of these tracks.
Other times this reach falls flat, or at least short of its boundary pushing aims, as on the cloyingly poppy “Die Young”, the largely repetitive “Just Dancing”, and shapeless buzz of “Signal”. The album kicks off with a rush of idealism and fixates lyrically on the possibility of being endlessly inspired by the world and its motion, but too often these songs overstay their welcome or fall back on convenient verse-chorus structures. That sense of kinetic energy is one of the most compelling aspects of the album, epitomized on “Kick Jump Twist” by blippy synth structures reminiscent of fellow F |M electro-pop duo Crystal Castles, but ultimately sputters out, directionless. “Song” falls into the same trap, where the endless repetition of the chorus as outro leaves its central thesis that “it can be” little more than a hollow platitude.
Like almost any sophomore release, this album deals heavily with the tantalizing and perilous concept of fame. This is most directly acknowledged on “Radio”, with its authority baiting lines about “sucking an American dick” and “faking the truth in a new pop song”. It’s compelling, too, albeit a bit comical given that most of these songs fall in the 3-4 minute mark, and could be about 2/3 that length if the double-choruses were edited down.
Reinvention is a theme throughout, highlighted in “Just Dancing” by Meath’s admission that “I’m faking it even before I touch the skin”. Given the ease with which we edit our identities today, and the endless digital possibilities of re-invention, the duo’s desire to expand pop’s musical and lyrical capacities strikes a chord. You can almost hear Meath’s vocals imitate Fleetwood Mac era Stevie Nicks in the final moments of “Signal”, and the stripped down instrumental suits her perfectly on the squawky “Slack Jaw”. This suggests an untapped direction for the group, or at least one that builds on the minimalist electronics of the album opener. Meath and Sanborn end the album with another trick up their sleeves, embracing spacious percussion and a fuzzy, twinkling synth line on “Rewind”. This time, swelling to meet the repeated chorus, there’s a sense of gravitas and depth missing from so many of these tracks. Rather than telling us about the past, or technology, the two let the music do the talking. What Now only lives up to the strength of its declaration on about half of these songs, when the lyrical subversion clicks or the arc of the track reaches fruition, but it’s clear this is a band with the guts to go the distance. What now. What next?