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Sylvan Esso subverts and embraces the pop world on a brilliant second album

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Photo: Shervin Lainez
Photo: Shervin Lainez
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Sylvan Esso

Album: What Now
Label: Loma Vista

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Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut—one of 2014’s best records—felt like a gorgeous click, the sound of two musicians previously focused on vastly different types of music who somehow fit together like sonic puzzle pieces. Nick Sanborn had been making beat-heavy soundscapes as Made Of Oak when he met Amelia Randall Meath, a member of traditionalist indie-folk trio Mountain Man. Her otherworldly singing and his sideways beats came together quickly in an album highlighted by some stunning singles, particularly the mesmerizing trio of “Coffee,” “Hey Mami,” and “Play It Right.”

But if that album was the sound of new love or blooming musical chemistry, the perfectly titled What Now grows into something deeper, smarter, more comfortable, more intimate, and more cohesive. Where Sylvan Esso collected some great songs, What Now feels like a statement of purpose, a duo stretching into the shape it was meant to be and bringing it all purposefully together. More than that, the record is actually—at least partially—about finding that chemistry and celebrating the joy of hearing and creating beautiful sounds.

It starts, in fact, with “Sound,” in which Meath’s voice slowly emerges from a haze of glitches, coming into focus to declare, “I was gonna write a song for you.” It’s more of a mood-setting meditation than a song, and in that way an indication that What Now will be more holistic and constructed an endeavor. (It turns out to be that, and more.) “Sound” gives way to the joyous “The Glow,” a gorgeously confident paean to the power of music itself. It’s presumably about The Microphones’ indie-rock classic The Glow Pt. 2, with Meath being consumed by the overwhelming afterglow of experiencing live music with friends. It’s infectiously ecstatic.

“Radio” continues the grand tradition of pop songs nibbling at the hand that feeds it, simultaneously critiquing the state of modern pop while absolutely bathing in it: Does it matter to the machine that creates pop stars that this song’s about being a “slave to the radio”? Not when the result is something so gloriously catchy and pointed. It’s the aural equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too, and if it becomes a summer anthem, the irony will be thick and sweet. “Song,” another song-of-the-summer contender, is the greatest thing The Postal Service never wrote, and another filled with self-reference: “I’m the song that you can’t get out of your head.” (It proves that chorus right.)

It isn’t all high-gear dance-pop though: Sylvan Esso saves a nice exhale for the final two tracks on What Now: “Slack Jaw” is a gorgeous ballad that throws back to Meath’s more austere, folky days, with her voice accompanied by just a hint of a beat and a bed of vintage synth. From there it’s “Rewind,” a slinky closer that brings things back to the vibe of the duo’s first record, a reminder perhaps of where things started just a short time ago. But mostly it’s about What Now, a record so good it answers its own title question and makes you eager to ask it again.


Purchase What Now here, which helps support The A.V. Club.