Tuesday, July 18, 2017

album review: 'what now' by sylvan esso

So here's a problem that pretty much only music nerds and music critics have that I'm fairly certain I've brought up before: we simply hear so much that it becomes a lot harder to surprise us with sounds or tones that are presumed to be 'on the cutting edge'. Oh, it can happen with an interesting melodic turn of phrase or lyrics that twist in a fascinating direction or an artist presenting themselves in a starkly different way, but at the end of the day, I have to admit there's a part of my mind that wants to immediately place new records in a context with the sounds of the time. And yes, I know that's not entirely healthy - go into everything fresh, that whole thing - but context is important, and if I feel I don't acknowledge at least some of it, I'm not doing my job.

So take Sylvan Esso - when I first heard their self-titled record, their sound immediately fell into place in my mind: imagine a group who smoothed over the edges of Purity Ring with gentler folk tendencies, and an odd sense of heartfelt but wry humor that could draw you towards the huskier tones rather than shock with visceral detail. By necessity that made them a subtler group, and yet one that I was certain was never to get the same buzz - the hooks had a slower burn, the writing required a little more to unpack, and while I wasn't crazy about that debut, I definitely heard its appeal - they made complete sense in the indie pop scene of 2014, at least for me.

And to my mild surprise, that record actually turned out to be a modest hit, prompting a switch in label and the band to release a follow-up this year that finally managed to get to the top of my schedule. Apparently, they were going to taking more of a satirical approach to bigger sounds in modern pop this time around - which made sense to me, given their sense of humor and style of delivery - so I did want to cover this, so what did we find on What Now?

Hmm... well, it's an interesting case, the sort of indie pop record that does show an advancement of their sound and style and really is anchored by the writing stepping it up a notch, the sort of project where I completely get the good reviews it's getting... and yet I'm not really crazy about this album. And this is coming from someone who is a real sucker for a strong, nuanced pop satire, but if anything What Now reminds me a lot of Metric's Pagans In Vegas from 2015 - buoyed by sharp, incisive writing, but ultimately just not quite delivering pop tunes as sharp as what they were looking to dissect; both good projects, but still shy of greatness.

And I want to start with that satire, because the nuanced take that Sylvan Esso have on modern pop - particularly indie pop - is pretty fascinating, mostly because of framing and the desire to dig deeper. They aren't afraid to admit that they themselves are a pop act, so the bigger question becomes not just what it means to make pop music, but how much that sort of pop music and pop culture influences and drives one's life, which pushes the satire in odd directions. 'Radio' is the most obvious example, taking the detached self-flagellation of Katy Perry's 'Chained To The Rhythm' to a much more dark and incisive place in describing her brand of folk pop as she tries everything to get a radio hit that'll fade away so quickly - most pop starlets would not sing a line 'Now don't you look good sucking American dick', and even fewer would direct that line at themselves. And when you follow it with the desperation of 'Kick Jump Twist' and 'Just Dancing' in its constant evolution of first impressions but never deeper, it's clear Sylvan Esso is taking more aim at the performative element of pop that is done to fill time for the masses and churns through artists, ignoring the humanity beneath them. 

And yet even with that, Sylvan Esso aren't quite making an anti-pop screed - they know there's emotional power in music, and they wouldn't be longing for the sweeter innocence to just enjoy pop if there wasn't something there worth caring about in the first place. And where this record gets fascinating is in fusing those pop moments with reality, like 'Die Young' where she speaks from the perspective of a melodramatic pop song character that now actually having fallen in love her plans to go out in a blaze of glory need to consider him. And I love how exasperated it feels - not angry, her fire hasn't gone out, but just impatient as young love often is. Or take 'Song', where our frontwoman wishes she could be a piece of music that would stick in the mind of a former lover and recapture that old feeling, to make it seem real again. See, Sylvan Esso gets that connective power that can run through pop in an alienating world, and by the time we get to 'Rewind', those tones are a soundtrack, a composite that helps support who she is without being her only point of definition, a framework she knows is flimsy but can resonate regardless. Now acute followers might notice a few thematic parallels between this project and the last album I reviewed on this channel - sophomore projects questioning what's next and the role of pop culture on it, but again, two key differences. Firstly, Sylvan Esso can actually write songs with lyrical flair and poetry and subtlety and never make the choice to deny their own agency - again, the choice is actually being made here, and even when it's bad they're not asking for your blind justification, just your consideration of why. And secondly... look, Amelia Meath just is a great performer here, and while I don't really think a song like 'Slack Jaw' quite fits with the record, her subtle husky delivery is a great fit for this project; reminiscent of Mandy Lee of MisterWives but with the poise and wry confidence to underplay and only rely on pitch correction when needed to make an artistic point, like how they bend the tuning of a broken synthesizer around her vocals for 'Sound' as she's trying to assemble a tone that played so loud will reach anyone - a nifty layered metaphor reflecting love overstated with details lost but also pop song ubiquity.

And here's the funny thing: this really isn't a 'loud' record, both through Meath's delivery and much of the production. It's a record that seems meant to be played on sensitive headphones that'll pick up the lo-fi crackles and buzzes around 'Sound' and 'Slack Jaw' and 'Rewind' - hell, even on more upbeat songs the beats are thinner and sharper, only allowed to feel less than meticulous as when they're falling apart like with the hollow percussion on 'Rewind'. And yet it actually leads to the odd feeling like Sylvan Esso might have slightly undercut their satire or exploration of modern pop by not sounding closer to it - there's no tropical rhythms, any skittering hi-hats feel flimsy as hell on songs like 'Kick Jump Twist' which is closer to footwork than trap, and the only song that seems to use rubbery bass and reverb tones is 'Die Young', at least until the blocky synths come in. As a whole I'm a bit mixed on some of the synthesizer tones, honestly: I like the chiptune of 'Radio' and some of the phaser effects on 'The Glow', but I am left feeling that the percussion can feel a little frail to balance the blockier tones properly, especially when acoustic guitars that could smooth over the groove feel sampled and chopped to ribbons - and even when they're not like on 'Song' it reminds me more of a cut from Nelly Furtado's release this year! And that's not counting the points that almost feel too minimalist, playing to even sparser experimental electronics that can feel a tad jarring with the ideas being explored here - although in contrast we also got songs like 'Signal' with the constant tinkling bells that actually felt a bit overstuffed. And on a similar note, I'm not denying that for this sort of record repetition becomes important, but there are definitely songs where they could have afforded to flesh out verses and hooks a bit more instead of just repeating, just to add a bit more color - I know they're capable of it.

But as a whole... I wouldn't say I'm crazy about this record, but for an understated, borderline quirky without being twee indie pop record, I did appreciate it. I wouldn't think it's quite as funny as their last record, but the earnestness and brains are still here, less about burying pop and more a gentle exploration of what it has meant to their lives, for good or ill. As such, I'm thinking a light 7/10 and a recommendation if you're curious, especially songs like 'Die Young', 'Radio', and, well, 'Song'. It's not going to be up everyone's alley, but like good pop music, it's willing to take you all in if you're willing to listen, so definitely check it out.

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