In his 2007 book Love Is a Mixtape, rock critic Rob Sheffield explained why he considers the synth-pop duo to be his favorite musical pairing. To him, the classic form works as a symbiotic relationship. The shy producer, lurking in darkness behind the synth, is too reserved to sing songs himself. He needs the human flair of a larger-than-life vocalist, who in turn needs a “cerebro-electro henchman” to deliver sparkling sounds. Together, they electrify the audience and achieve stardom. Durham duo Sylvan Esso built its career on this approach. With the wry single debut of “Hey Mami” in 2013, Sylvan Esso emerged as a genre-bending folk-electro curiosity, odd and lyrically incisive and inextricably linked to each other’s talents.
Producer Nick Sanborn’s scruffy IDM beats proved a nice minimalist foil for vocalist and onetime Mountain Man member Amelia Meath’s wispy delivery. Together, they shot to national popularity, countless retail playlists, and engendered fevered anticipation for their second release. Yet as we also know, indie fame is famously fickle. They could have easily become a one-album wonder, a “former buzz band” punch line. Fortunately, that isn’t what happened.A better track-for-track album than the duo’s self-titled 2014 LP, What Now proves Sylvan Esso has plenty of charisma and interesting musical ideas left in the can. As always, the music’s breezy sing-song aesthetic belies its subversion, cloaking acidic commentary in easily digestible pop nuggets. Take first single “Radio,” which, in classic Top 40 form, clocks in at a smooth 3:30. Under the song’s bouncy glitch-pop exterior, it seethes with barbed observations (“Now don’t you look good sucking American dick”) about our current attention economy and PR-driven music landscape. While it’s far from the first song to try the “woke” radio single conceit, it’s a smart, memorable attempt.
Elsewhere, What Now eschews social commentary to search for specific feelings and memories. “The Glow” is a twitchy, nostalgic ode to the pleasures of music and companionship, both publically and privately. Specifically, Meath recalls dreamy memories of listening to The Microphones, whose vocalist Phil Elverum is mentioned in the lyrics.In general, What Now aims for a bigger electronic sound, and while Sylvan Esso never quite reaches gaudy big-room EDM, it’s a moderate turn away from the band’s floaty, folky side. There’s still some classic Sylvan slow jams, like “Rewind,” but some of these songs might be hard to play in the background of say, a coffee shop. Sanborn and Meath have expanded their creative palettes, and they look to be settling in for a long, steady ride. David Ford Smith
This article appeared in print with the headline Next Levels”.”