On What Now, North Carolinian electronic duo Sylvan Esso successfully meld voice and instruments in a way that dissolves the distinction.By Dave Faulkner.
Sylvan Esso’s ‘What Now’
Exactly three years ago, electronic duo Sylvan Esso released their self-titled debut album. There was little fanfare about it at the time, but it still managed to reach a respectable 39 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. Seven months later, Sylvan Esso was being acclaimed as one of the year’s best albums. It was on the “Best of 2014” lists for The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Spin.
Yesterday Sylvan Esso released What Now, and their follow-up more than fulfils the promise shown on their debut: it exceeds it in every way. What Now is sharper, bolder and richer than its predecessor, and I’m confident that, once again, critics will love it. I’m even more confident that you will love it.
“Sound” is the title of the first song on the album, but the first sound heard is digital static. Eleven seconds of noisy clicks and pops lead into a distorted melody, which, it soon becomes apparent, is the heavily treated voice of Sylvan Esso’s singer, Amelia Meath. Instrumentalist Nick Sanborn has fed Meath’s a capella vocals into a Korg MS-20 synthesiser, using it to drive the oscillators and “hard tune” the instrument itself. The effect is unearthly, almost psychotic, until a Vocoder version blends in with it, sweetening the mix. Finally, Meath’s untreated voice rises to the fore, eventually concluding the song on its own. Sylvan Esso have slowly peeled away all the artifice, leaving Meath’s voice completely naked. “Sound” encapsulates Sylvan Esso’s artistic raison d’être in just two-and-a-half minutes: their aim is to explore the interplay of voice and technology, each using the other to further communication, but with the human element always front and centre.
“The Glow” follows closely and it, too, begins with an audio artefact. This time it’s the stuttering of a CD player as it attempts to read a disc. Sylvan Esso found beauty in its characteristic glitching and they used that as a key ingredient of the backing track for their rapturous ode to music:
And I remember the Glow
Oh, oh, I remember the Glow
In my headphones
After school and slightly stoned
I remember the Glow
I interviewed Amelia Meath last week and she told me their song was inspired by her memory of hearing another song, “The Glow, Pt. 2” by The Microphones, for the first time. “It was a really important record to a lot of really dorky music kids,” she told me. “I downloaded it on Napster when I heard it.”
Though Sylvan Esso formed in 2013, Meath and Sanborn first met three years earlier when they found themselves on the same bill at the Cactus Club in Milwaukee. Sanborn began the show with a solo set of “loud, sad, instrumental hip-hop”, as he later described it to NPR, while Meath was a member of the indie-folk trio Mountain Man. Mutual admiration led to Meath asking Sanborn to do an electronic version of one of Mountain Man’s simple, unadorned songs. His remix of “Play It Right” is one of the tracks on Sylvan Esso, marking the beginning of their fruitful collaboration.
A standout song on What Now is “Die Young”, which comes as track three. Meath recounts her immature fantasy of doomed adolescence, totally ruined after she met her soulmate. Her lyrics are playful and poignant, elegantly matched with a melody of ravishing simplicity. All the while, Sanborn’s synthesisers dart around the vocal in striking counterpoint. The oblique pop of “Die Young” demonstrates their growing confidence as songwriters. In our interview, Meath told me that the heartfelt sentiments expressed in “Die Young” were quite unusual for her. “Usually I avoid writing love songs because I think they’re boring, and also because everyone’s dragged love through the dirt,” she said, “so I was really happy to be able to write a love song that I think is unique.”
Next up is “Radio”, and it was the first single taken from the album. Its bouncy groove and catchy musical hooks seem custom designed for radio. That is, until you listen to the scathing lyric: “Now, don’t you look good sucking American dick?” The song is a diatribe against the commodifying influence of the music industry broadly and radio in particular.
I’ve got the moves of a TV queen
Folk girl hero in a magazine
Faking the truth in a new pop song
Don’t you wanna sing along?
Slave to the radio, slave to the radio, slave to the radio
Three point three oh
“Three point three oh” is a reference to the supposed ideal length a song should have for commercial airplay (3'30"). As an additional ironic twist, that happens to be this song’s length, too.
When Sylvan Esso performed “Radio” on NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon recently, the network’s censors edited Meath’s vocals three times, even though “dick” is the solitary and mild swear word. The decision left the singer bemused. “It’s just ridiculous,” she exclaimed. “Argh! We live in a post-censorship world. America’s president … talked about grabbing women in the pussy and we still elected him, so we’re fucked. Like, the [censor’s] beep doesn’t exist anywhere [else]. Just own it.” Apparently the words sung by entertainers on late-night TV are more offensive than those uttered by presidential candidates in prime time.
“Kick, Jump, Twist” is also a single and is equally perverse in its radio-unfriendliness. The lyric isn’t the issue here: it’s the prickly music that will stick in the craw of most programmers. The atonal blips of the synths remind me of a primitive arcade game – a demented version of Pong perhaps? The unmusical bleeping is also rhythmically askew, threatening to topple over into randomness at any minute. The intrusion of a dyspeptic bass synth riff between verses only adds to the feeling of uneasiness. Meath told me this fickle choice for a second single was a deliberate ploy. “We wanted to just put out something a little ‘out there’ after the pop sheen of ‘Radio’,” she confesses. “We wanted to say, ‘But we’re still weird. We’re not going totally pop,’ you know?”
One of the main reasons Sylvan Esso’s music is so idiosyncratic is Sanborn’s imaginative, spacious production. Apart from conventional instruments such as guitars and percussion, Sanborn employs a variety of old and new analog synths as well as other exotic audio-manipulation devices. The musician has accumulated all manner of arcane gadgets, designed by innovative engineers such as Dave Smith and the brilliant boffins at Teenage Engineering and Make Noise. In 2015, Sanborn described his musical approach to Jose Lopez-Sanchez for Brightest Young Things online magazine. “I think a lot of electronic music feels distant or alien on purpose, and sometimes that’s good,” he said. “But I like my stuff to feel really welcoming, and when it’s uncomfortable I want it to be physically uncomfortable.” Sanborn’s multilayered production is complex and sophisticated but most of the time he likes to keep things sounding very minimal. Even during its most sonically dense, extreme moments, the music retains an uncluttered intimacy. That’s quite an achievement.
One track that will be a single, if there is any justice, is the hauntingly beautiful “Song”. The pretty melody trips along effortlessly over Sanborn’s nimble arrangement. Once again, Meath is revelling in the pure joy of music, penning another love song to pop, to “the song you can’t get out of your head”:
Gimme the thing that I saw once
When I was younger and I hadn’t had enough
When all I knew about love was on a page
in a boardroom full of grown-ups
Cuz I can feel how it feels
Even though it isn’t real
It’s living on the tip of my tongue
I listened to it forever once, yes
Many of Meath’s ideas for songs come to her while she is out walking. “I write in the air, I don’t write with instruments, and I write lyrics and melody at the same time,” she explained. When it comes to up-tempo songs, Meath simply adjusts her gait. “I had to figure out how to get the right [tempo] and it turns out that walking fast works … I could mark time and write at the same time.” Some of the songs are written from the perspective of invented characters – “Just Dancing” and “Sound” are two examples on this album – but Meath admits, “There’s a lot more of me on this record, I would say. I think there’s a lot more me than there was on the first one.”
The songs on Sylvan Esso were written when Meath was 24 but now she’s 28 she feels a lot more confident and determined in her vision, she told me. “The goal is to write pure pop that has humanity behind it and is about the duality of life, and not the simplicity,” she said. “I think that’s one of the sad parts about current pop music, is that so many of them are, you know, like, ‘You broke up with me and you’re an asshole, and I’m amazing!’ ” She laughs. “You were probably an asshole, too, and it’s a much more interesting thing if you admit that, and talk about that feeling, you know? That’s the goal, to write pop songs that are about being a real human in the world.”
There is no doubting the humanity of Sylvan Esso. The way Meath and Sanborn have harnessed technology to create their music is ultra modern and sophisticated. Nevertheless, the result always sounds homespun, organic and “felt” rather than anything clinical, abstract or remote. Meath’s rhythmic melodies are as one with Sanborn’s musical backing, which itself supports and enhances the mood of the lyric. The intuitive way they work together, with each member’s contribution never overshadowing the other’s, makes this musical partnership something to treasure. Individually, Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath are talented musicians but their collaboration as Sylvan Esso has transformed them into formidable artists.
In this review I’ve expanded a little on six of the songs on What Now, but there are another four that are equally impressive, including the emotional one-two punch of “Slack Jaw” and “Rewind” that close out the album. Nothing more needs to be said other than this: I immediately liked What Now, and each and every time I’ve played it since I’ve enjoyed it more.
VISUAL ARTS Van Gogh and the Seasons
NGV International, Melbourne, until July 9
FESTIVAL High Country Harvest
Towns throughout north-east Victoria, May 5-21
CINEMA Stranger With My Face International Film Festival
Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, May 4-7
PHOTOGRAPHY Welcome to Glebe
The Shop Gallery, Sydney, May 5-7
MUSIC Narara Music Festival
Mount Penang Parklands, Gosford, NSW, May 6
CINEMA Shaam Syrian Film Festival
Hoyts Melbourne Central, May 1-3
Broadway Cinema, Sydney, May 8-11
MUSIC Classic Album Sundays: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill
The World Bar, Sydney, April 30
JAZZ Illawarra Jazz Festival
Venues throughout Illawarra, May 5-7
MUSEUM Egyptian Mummies: Exploring Ancient Lives
Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Sydney, until April 30
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "Sylvan apples". Subscribe here.