by Thomas Damgaard
With the release of Sylvan Esso’s self titled debut in 2014, it was immediately clear that vocalist Amelia Meath and producer Nicholas Sanborn had landed on something special. The chemistry between Meath’s soft, slightly melancholy voice and Sanborn’s intricate but subtle electronic music resulted in a band with a sound all their own. On What Now their unique chemistry continues to develop. Their second album sees them greatly expanding and experimenting with their sound, but remains an intimate experience anchored on two artists who share a distinct connection.
Hearing Meath’s and Sanborn’s work separately, it could be difficult to imagine that their styles would blend so well. Perhaps this is best reflected in What Now’s opening track, where Sandborn leads with warbling, discordant synths that slowly give way to Meath’s clean and controlled vocals until the two voices find harmony. It’s this mutual artistic respect that drives the album forward, with both Meath and Sanborn drawing influence from and leaning on the other as What Now plays out.
This deeper melding of their two styles is at the heart of what makes What Now so intoxicating. Throughout the album, Sanborn experiments with indie-folk music more heavily than on their debut, as evidenced by the acoustic guitar sprinkled throughout “The Glow”, “Song”, and “Rewind”. Similarly, Meath allows herself to indulge in Sanborn’s knack for catchy, dance-inducing compositions more readily. “Radio” and “Signal” both see her delivering vocals with a forceful, ecstatic joy largely absent from their previous release. More so than on Sylvan Esso, the two halves of the group bolster each other, an impressive feat considering how natural and developed their sound has been from the start. Sanborn demonstrates a greater restraint in his production, often building up tracks then suddenly dropping away to allow Meath’s stunning voice to take center stage. Likewise, there are several moments where Meath falls back on a hook and Sanborn brings the instrumentals forward.
Just as Sylvan Esso manages to subvert musical expectations, What Now consistently delivers themes and lyrical content with a depth rarely seen on pop albums. “Die Young” relies on an established love ballad structure, but Sanborn slows the tempo just enough to add a remorseful tinge to the track. Rather than espousing the joys of love, Meath contemplates the sacrifices we make as love enters our lives unexpectedly, ending the last verse with the biting line, “I had a plan but you ruined it completely.” On “Radio”, Sanborn constructs what might well be the perfect pop track, were it not for the fact that Meath uses it as a platform to accuse pop-stars of “sucking american dick” and repeatedly warns of how easy it is for a musician to become a “slave to the radio”. At other times What Now takes a more esoteric approach, as on “Just Dancing”. Here Meath quietly questions the release found in dance music; whether it is possible to just dance or whether it is always an escape from the struggles and regrets of our lives.
While What Now takes a decidedly more pop approach than Sylvan Esso’s debut, Meath and Sanborn have not lost touch with the raw vulnerability that made their previous release such a breath of fresh air. The album’s closing tracks, “Slack Jaw” and “Rewind”, come across with such genuine emotion that they can be difficult to listen without a quivering lip. It is this authenticity that raises Sylvan Esso to the forefront of the indie-pop scene. They continue to deliver music that is not plagued by teams of producers or the need for mass appeal. Each track feels like the result of two people working closely together, inspiring and challenging one another. In that aspect, What Now brings new life to a genre that all too often feels stagnant and uninspired.