Sylvan Esso have officially myth-busted the concept of second album syndrome with their sophomore electro-pop record What Now. While the album title may be a tongue-in-cheek toast to the success of their 2014 self-titled debut, the new record shows the band maturing their signature sound.
The lyrics play with both the political and personal, providing commentary on everything from our obsession with oversharing information, the fine line between self-awareness and narcissism and realising that falling in love doesn’t always save you. Sonically, this record is more stripped back but also takes production in more distorted directions than the debut. With Amelia Meath on lead vocals and Nick Sanborn on production, the North Carolina duo’s latest 10-track record is a bolder and brighter version of themselves.
Opening with the sound of a crackling speaker and muffled vocals drowned in feedback, ‘Sound’ eases us carefully into the record. This is an easy progression into ‘The Glow’, which oozes nostalgia over shuddering synth and acoustic guitar. “In my headphones, after school and slightly stoned. I remember the glow,” sings Meath.
‘Die Young’, one of the first singles off the record, is an undeniable standout. Dancing over buzzing synth, the lyrics tell of an unconventionally sweet but macabre love story about deferring plans for an early death to make way for a blossoming relationship.
‘In Radio’, the duo quickly swaps sweet sentiments for stinging quips as it fires shots at the modern music industry. “Don’t you look good sucking America’s dick?” taunts Meath over a perfectly packaged techno pop banger. Overtly ironic, the lyrics poke fun at the formulaic 3.30-minute structure of most pop songs despite the track lasting for exactly 3 minutes and 32 seconds.
‘Kick Jump Twist’ is a mellow dance track peppered with blips that wouldn’t sound out of place in a game of retro ping pong. Meanwhile, delicate bells ring over the heavy reverb and booming chorus vocals of ‘Signal’.
‘Just Dancing’ makes you wanna do just that. It’s a techno-pop gem propelled by an upbeat drum loop and distorted keyboard melody. “I’m just dancing. I’m faking it before I even touch the skin,” teases Meath.
While Sylvan Esso is usually an eclipse of both production and vocals, ‘Slack Jaw’ dials the former back to a minimum to allow Meath’s clear croons to take the spotlight. Beautifully written and sung, the track almost sounds acapella in contrast to its heavily produced predecessors on the album.
‘Rewind’ opens with airy synth and clattering drum beats for the dulcet and dreamy bookend to the album. “Watch them, take it on back, take it on back, do the rewind, yeah,” sings Meath in the chorus.
An album that is as varied lyrically as it is sonically, What Now sees Sylvan Esso live up to the potential they hinted at in their debut. On their second album, the band explore a matured version of their unique sound while lyricising personal and universal emotions. While some of the contrasts can be jarring, What Now is a testament to Sylvan Esso’s ability to wrangle multiple influences into a single body of work.
‘What Now’ is out today. Listen here.