Sylvan Esso – What Now

Under the easy and accessible surface of many, a synthpop group lies something far less commercially viable.

From the Eurythmics to Crystal Castles, the classic synth-duo of male producer/female singer has often been a lot stranger than their singles might have suggested. And so it is that an undercurrent of the ‘old weird America’ runs gently through Sylvan Esso’s sleek radio-friendly songs. Beneath these machine-made beats, you can almost hear the click and whirr of handicraft (unsurprisingly, Bon Iver is a fan). This creaking Americana frequently arises in singer Amelia Meath’s voice, her distinctive melodies and phrasing betray her background in country-folk group, Mountain Man. Production-wise this is really relegated to a few acoustic guitars and a sampled pedal-steel guitar — perhaps the defining instrument of country music — which glitches and stutters in ‘The Glow’.

Revealing, we see the group’s duality in their Amoeba Records ‘What’s In My Bag’ Interview. Producer Nick Sanborn enthuses about Warp Records alumni like Clark and Prefuse 73 while Meath drags up ethnographic Folkways reissues like “Songs Of The Michigan Lumberjacks” and “Songs of The Sailors” – “Songs Of The Sea”. These strange old American influences lie underneath the surface of their music the way America’s state as a melting pot is only revealed if you really look for it. To many, this just sounds like indie pop, the way America seems like one cohesive, modern country. Ask for someone’s family history and they’ll tell you of their mixed Polish-Spanish-Irish heritage; a multiplicity of fractured, ancient identities are revealed beneath a seemingly unified surface.

Opening track ‘Sound’ makes this all fairly explicit. It is certainly one of the few ‘interlude’ or ‘intro’ tracks that have an actual reason to exist. The track almost seems like a manifesto or an audio metaphor for this new-old synthesis I’m yammering on about. It sounds like an a Capella track from Meath’s country-folk group treated with electronics. In it, Meath’s voice controls an old broken Korg synthesizer which glitches as it struggles to provide electronic warmth for her rustic melody. It’s a frail track which starts the album off in an unanticipated manner. The tracks that follow it are simply two of the finest indie pop tracks Sylvan Esso have recorded. They are songs that seem likely to appeal to a wide range of people (as synthpop often does). ‘The Glow’ is perhaps my favorite track on the whole album. First off, the production and arrangement are simply stunning. The track starts with the aforementioned pedal steel before expanding into brittle drum programming and bright, colorful synths. Meath’s voice fits perfectly into the mix as she unveils a simple, yet strong melody. It is my favorite kind of pop song, one that is clearly very catchy but has enough artsy elements for me to contemplate and overanalyse.

‘Die Young’, which follows, is almost as strong a song (but will likely be more popular). The track sounds more stereotypically contemporary with its flute-like sampling of Meath’s voice opening the track (in that very tropical house manner). This time, the song’s main hook is Sanborn’s thick analog synth hook as Meath seems to play second-fiddle to the production.

Sylvan Esso‘s “What Now” is a conceptually fascinating album, a synthesis of new and old, city and rural, pop and folk.

Like many albums, “What Now” is fairly front-loaded. The second half becomes a little disappointingly pedestrian. ‘Song’ is about as memorable as its non-title suggests. Tracks like ‘Signal’ and ‘Just Dancing’ are enjoyable enough songs whose best moments are generally Sanborn’s virtuosic production. I feel like ‘Slack Jaw’ should’ve been earlier in the sequencing of the album. It’s deathly slow pace makes a great contrast to the more dancefloor-oriented first half. It seems to be wasted and almost buried at the end of the album.

Understood through its strongest songs, Sylvan Esso‘s “What Now” is a conceptually fascinating album, a synthesis of new and old, city and rural, pop and folk. This fits greatly with my aesthetic belief that we can learn from history without merely repeating or recreating it. Tradition should always be re-evaluated; as the naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote: “no way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof”. The album’s synthesis of up-to-date electronic beats and folkish melody reminds us that neither technology nor nature is inherently good: technology has its nuclear weapons, nature its parasites. These two concepts shouldn’t be seen as oppositional. It is possible to love music of the past without thinking it somehow better than new music — there is no cognitive dissonance in enjoying both delta blues and Drake. This duality of What Now speaks to my deep love of nature, but also to my realization that if I actually lived somewhere rural I’d have very few people I could chat to about Young Thug. And so, I carry on being a nature dilettante; a city slicker who admires birds as they perch atop skyscrapers.

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