Sylvan Esso, “What Now”
Sylvan Esso’s eponymous debut album, released in 2014, carved out a specific niche filled by Amelia Meath’s beautifully airy vocals and Nick Sanborn’s mostly mid-tempo beats. It’s an album that wouldn’t be out of place during a trip to H&M or an afternoon at a neighborhood coffee shop. But with titles like “Dreamy Bruises” and “Could I Be,” all may not be as carefree as it feels. There’s a disquietude that bubbles just below the surface of a lot of their songs.
Enter their sophomore album, in which everything boils over. Recorded in 2016, it’s called What Now, for reasons both glaringly obvious and less so. The subtly communicated uneasiness of Sylvan Esso is now front and center, embodied by Meath’s voice bumping up against Sanborn’s cutting production, which seems more inspired by technology than ever before. See the purposefully glitchy intro and faster pace of “The Glow,” which, much like 2016 and its aftermath, won’t change if you adjust your television set (proverbial or otherwise). Some things are just out of your hands, and there are tweaky reminders of this throughout the album. Meath and Sanborn are controlling transmission.
What Now is the sound of the two of them addressing tensions head on, resulting in varying degrees of enjoyment for listeners who happen to be around for it. “Die Young” stands out, as do the two closing tracks, which sound more like what we’re used to from them. But then there’s stuff like “Radio,” which, even as a takedown of the music industry, doesn’t do much to set itself aside from what it skewers (“Shiny Happy People” was a satire, too, lest we forget). But the music is insistent and hard to ignore, and so are lyrics like “I was gonna die young / Now I gotta wait for you, hun.” No one can say that What Now doesn’t demand to be heard; there just isn’t much about it that merits repeated listenings.