Thank you Jenna for recommending What Now for review!
What makes a song? Or rather, what is a song in its true form? Is it the studio version? Is it the live version? Is it the version that exists in the artist’s mind? Is it a combination of every version of the song? I’m always fascinated by this question at live shows and when listening to studio sessions, where artists re-record or tweak a song a bit for a second release. The question gets tougher when considering a critical analysis of music – what version of a song do you look at when you evaluate it? Is there a meaningful point to make regarding the quality of music that comes across as much worse live, or vice versa?
Sylvan Esso began as a side project for Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, but catapulted into the indie pop and indietronica scene on the heels of their song “Coffee”. “Coffee” and the rest of that debut album garnered attention for its minimal but precise beats and Amelia’s unique and addicting voice bolstered by charming and well-written lyrics. What Now is the follow-up to that album. This time, Sylvan Esso has changed direction a bit. Rather than focusing on dancey grooves and a more electronic direction, they flirt with indie pop sounds here. The songs have more lyrical direction and are more fleshed out on the whole. This works both for and against What Now – I think this move shows more artistic potential and makes the album more personable, but at the same time Sylvan Esso appears to approach this direction with trepidation. Both Nick and Amelia seem hesitant – him in his production and her in her singing. For all of the strengths of “What Now”, by the end it comes across as being played safely and I wish there was simply more.
Nonetheless, the strengths of What Now are numerous and significant. The highlight songs of this album bring more than the sum of their parts to the table when all the pieces come together. Songs like “Die Young” and “Song” have wonderful, heartfelt, and charming songwriting, a great, catchy instrumentation and the entire song seems to feel complete. These songs progress, they tell a story, and they are immensely satisfying to hear. They are full of little details that help complete the song, I loved the instrumental bridge in “Die Young” and when the bass comes in in “Song”. “Radio” is another highlight, in which Sylvan Esso try their best to write their sonically most radio-friendly song and lyrically least radio-friendly song and pull it off fantastically. I can’t stress enough how well everything just clicks together on the highlights of What Now: Amelia’s voice plays so well with the new indie pop sound, the songwriting is wonderful, the hooks and choruses are catchy, and the instrumentation just feels complete.
There is also a great deal of diversity when it comes to What Now which was a satisfying change from the debut. I felt that Sylvan Esso lived in a very consistent, nocturnal atmosphere. It worked for a single album, but its refreshing to hear diversity. It shows up in every way possible throughout; the lyrics, the atmosphere, the song progressions, and the tempo of the album change consistently. Listen to the difference between “Radio” (their poppiest) to “Kick Jump Twist” (their instrumentally riskiest). Consider the lyrical differences between “The Glow” and “Slack Jaw”, placed perfectly to mirror each other in the album. What Now is therefore a surprisingly engaging listen for its genre and I find that diversity is something that really sets Sylvan Esso apart in the indie pop/indietronica scene that has bloomed so magnificently in the past decade. Amelia and Nick are both incredibly talented and skilled in terms of what they bring to Sylvan Esso, and it’s evident when you dig into these songs how much care was brought to What Now.
My only fundamental complaint with this album is that it just doesn’t pack enough punch consistently, and that the majority of these tracks bring some of the strengths of the album but not all of them. “The Glow” has a beautiful message and story, but the instrumental falls flat and never really goes anywhere. “Kick Jump Twist” and “Just Dancing” are infectiously dancey (as you might imagine), but the lyrics here are rather cliche, and negatively stand out compared to the rest of the album. I understand that there are songs that are only intended to get people moving, and that perhaps Sylvan Esso wanted an instrumental that sat in the background more for “The Glow”, but I’m holding them to a higher standard. I’ve seen them do it all on the high points of this album, so I feel justified pointing out when they do not.
This brings me to my final point about What Now and wraps back to the introduction of this review. When listening to this album, I also spent time with their new Echo Mountain Sessions EP and I also had the good fortune to get to see Sylvan Esso live (which I recommend to EVERYONE). In both the Echo Mountain Sessions and in the live performance, I watched Sylvan Esso flesh many of these songs out to astonishing levels (even in the songs I already loved). On the Echo Mountain Sessions, Sylvan Esso brings in a full band to provide additional instrumentation including live drums, a saxophone, and backup vocals. The four songs on that EP come completely to life in this environment. Live, Sylvan Esso becomes a positively explosive electronic duo. Nick Sanborn adds a ton of effects and sounds to his instrumentals, and Amelia Meath absolutely belts her vocals. I was astonished at how powerful this music had become. I was tempted to chalk this up to me finally “getting” this album, but I can’t make that jump, and that’s the point I was trying to make in my introduction. There is a distinct difference between “The Glow” on the Echo Mountain Sessions and “The Glow” on What Now. I watched Sylvan Esso flesh these songs out more in two different instances, and it really proved to me that there is definitely room for more on What Now.
All in all, I think Sylvan Esso will just need a little more time to come into their own. Sylvan Esso was a passion project from the beginning for two friends, and the jump they have made in between their first and second albums is remarkable. They have a great ear for writing catchy, heartfelt, diverse, and simply infectious indie pop and indie electronic tunes and they’ve also got the crucial intangible in the indie pop world: they sound only like themselves. My only issue with What Now is that on certain tracks, it does not all come together and a few tracks end up feeling incomplete. The Echo Mountain Sessions EP and live performances confirm this. If Sylvan Esso approaches their next project with the confidence they absolutely exude live, look out.
And if you enjoyed What Now or Sylvan Esso in general, you owe it to yourself to listen to Echo Mountain Sessions and especially to see them live. They are an incredible show.