Since their self-titled debut in 2014, Sylvan Esso has delivered a steady stream of folksy, singsong melodies backed by pulsing electronica, songs that sound as at home in an Anthropologie dressing room as they do in a dark bar after midnight. Amelia Meath’s guileless vocals meet Nick Sanborn’s tremoring, eddying synth, and it sounds like flirtation, the easy partnership of two genres tucking into bed together. On No Rules Sandy, the group’s latest, they forgo some of this coziness for discovery, and the result is revivifying, letting air into the rooms where they’ve produced the world’s most palatable, tasteful dance music.
Opener “Moving” sets the tone, a skittering ode to compensatory numbness. Meath’s flat, confessional style matches the song’s content, in which she asks, “How can I be moved / When everything is moving?” It’s the less pointed counterpart of 2016’s “Radio,” trading a searing critique of sex and consumption for anxiety and anhedonia, an emotional glitch that matches its glitchy sound.
This discomfort is, counterintuitively, Sylvan Esso’s most welcome departure. Where previous albums have been winsome or playful, No Rules Sandy feels a little more jagged, carries more dirt under its fingernails. That leaves room for discovery upon repeat listens, less polish and more process. “Your Reality,” a jumble of strings, patches, and incantatory melody, illustrates this texture. It’s nice to witness a band’s expansion, to follow a signature style into more exploratory terrain.
The album’s highlight, though, is the driving “Echo Party,” whose looping bridges build to a dubious, timely chorus: “There’s a lot of people dancing downtown / Yeah, we all fall down / But some stay where they got dropped.” Meath’s flat, affectless delivery adds to the song’s ominous power. Like Nora dancing the tarantella in A Doll’s House, it’s a stark nod to dance as a bodily release, a way to skirt the darkness. Sanborn’s pinging, circular synth forms the perfect complement, a syncopated beat laced with wobbly bass. It evokes other end-of-summer jams that manage to distill the present while hearkening back to dance music’s past—Drake’s “Massive,” Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul.” At their best, Sylvan Esso is still playing with duality—up and down (see 2014’s “Coffee”), movement and stagnation, containment and release.
“Sunburn” reverts to a tried and true sound that’s less propulsive and more somnambulant. “Didn’t Care” is a bright, poppy track about fate that needs a jolt of urgency. Still, No Rules Sandy wanders into darker rooms, and it’s a welcome divergence from the band’s precedented formula, an exploration of unprecedented times.
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