Sylvan Esso: Free Love 

★★★★

[Loma Vista Recordings; Sep. 25]

Somewhere between American indie-folk and European electronic dance music lies Sylvan Esso, the most popular band Durham has produced in years. After showing us what they were on their first album and what they might become on their second—after the Grammy nomination, the late-night TV appearances, the Tiny Desk concerts, the sold-out DPAC shows—Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn show us what they are on their third album, Free Love, out September 25 on Loma Vista Recordings. 

By Free Love’s lights, what they are, more distinctly than a band with a powerhouse singer that writes fine electro-pop songs, is a band that harmonizes far-flung extremes by inverting their usual properties. 

Sylvan Esso makes hedonistic dance music feel intimate and lonesome ballads feel communal. They make minimalism feel monumental and maximalism feel streamlined. They make experimental production sound like pop and stripped-down pop sound experimental. They make whimsy sound professional and meticulousness sound adorable. They make playground chants sound sexy and romantic lyrics sound like nursery rhymes.   

Most of all, they make larger-than-life sound palm-of-your-hand—they’re pop stars you can put in your pocket. 

Free Love comes on the heels of Sylvan Esso’s WITH tour, in which they enlisted a big band to flesh out their spindly songs in large halls, and while Meath and Sanborn are mostly back to musical monogamy (other than a few key contributions from ringers like drummer Joe Westerlund), the collaborative impulse leaves ample traces on the album, which they recorded at their new studio, Betty’s.

Meath has mentioned the erosion of the strict roles of singer and producer in recent interviews, and you can feel that loosening of creative borders in ways that are hard to quantify. 

The album begins and ends with “What If” and “Make It Easy,” vocoder hymns resembling humbler versions of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” Indeed, though Sylvan Esso’s production is consummately modern, something about their songs often puts me in the mind of the warm, buoyant indie electro-pop of the mid-aughties: “The Ring,” a singalong with pattering percussion and pillowy bass, has something of The Blow’s classic “True Affection,” and might have made for a more obvious single than the decompressed electro-folk of “Rooftop Dancing,” if not than the chanting immediacy of the undeniable meet-cute “Ferris Wheel.” 

Even “Train,” a throwback to the deathless nineties Miami bass hit by Quad City DJ’s, feels tugged toward some mid-2000s golden age—you keep expecting Gwen Stefani to start spelling “bananas.”

Though the sound is spacious as always, Free Love features some of Sanborn’s most detailed music. “Numb,” which reminds me of a Tracey Thorn song (if you know Thorn’s post-Everything but the Girl work, you know that’s high praise), has a big, rubbery, Germanic bass sound as filters gulp and spit. The staticky, pulsing “Frequency” I can describe only as cuddlestep, and “Runaway,” with its elephant-trumpet bass, is mutant house warped to the edge of 4/4 time.

Free Love launches with an online release party starting at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, September 24, but just days before, the band released another video, this one for “Free,” perhaps the album’s conceptual centerpiece. A Mountain Man-like folk song with the barest electronic backing, it finds Meath reckoning with moderate fame, and it’s another example of inverted polarities: Freedom sounds an awful lot like constraint. But as always, she wears the pressure with generosity and grace. 


Follow Interim Editor in Chief Brian Howe on Twitter or send an email to bhowe@indyweek.com

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