Sylvan Esso's Past Anchored The Duo In An Uncertain Present
Sylvan Esso’s 'Free Love' plays like both a nostalgic artifact of carefree times and a reminder of what we have to look forward to when day-to-day life isn’t quite so fraught and frightening. From songs about teenage romance on a warm summer night to one quite literally titled 'Rooftop Dancing', the music transports us back to moments that we’re all realizing we took a little for granted when they seemed to be never-ending.
“[The album] is really about right now, which is what I’ve always been hoping for in a record,” says Amelia Meath, the group’s singer and main melody writer. “It’s reaching as far towards being able to be about everybody as I’ve ever gotten.”
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The best Sylvan Esso songs feel like finding the bedroom at a houseparty where all your favorite people are drinking, dancing, and chatting away from the prying eyes and awkward obligations of strangers. The instrumentation – handled primarily by Nick Sanborn – uses the tools of electronic music to build something distinctly organic, intimate, and welcoming. Minimalist synths have rarely sounded warmer than they do on a Sylvan Esso song, and Sanborn is a master of using sounds that conjure images of industrial warehouses to create something homespun and refreshingly rough-edged.
“Since the beginning of Nick and I making records, we’ve always been interested in making sure the record sounds grounded in the space where it was made. I always want when someone’s listening to a record for them to feel included,” Meath says. “Inviting them into the room in that way is really important.”
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The room where 'Free Love' was finished – and from where the group has been doing much of the album’s press – was a familiar one. The living room of the real-life couple’s shared home in Durham, North Carolina. Inspired by their bold 2019 WITH tour, in which they worked with a slew of musician friends to expanded the notion of what Sylvan Esso could be in concert, they found themselves trying to capture that sense of possibility on wax, despite not knowing when they’d actually be able to play these new songs for an audience.
“[The process] really looks like Nick and I sitting in a room and talking through how we want the emotional movement of the song to be,” says Meath. “We noticed on the WITH tour that a lot of songs had some pretty wild decisions on them, because we said things like, ‘There has to be a moment of discovery here.’”
Fans of Sylvan Esso’s first two albums – the group famously began as a side project for both Meath and Sanborn in 2013 – will find 'Free Love' to be familiar and comforting, but not derivative. A major part of that is because their formula is so established that every subversion, whether that’s a more ambient than usual synth or a mask of distortion on Meath’s voice, sticks out. It’s also because they know how to build on the past and recontextualize instead of simply rehashing.
Meath once said, “I try to write songs that people haven’t written before,” and that continues into 'Free Love', most notably on 'Ring', which is in the center of a Venn diagram between songs about life as a musician, songs about partnerships, and songs about tinnitus. For the first time as part of Sylvan Esso Meath says she really embraced writing songs from her own perspective, which she’d previously thought of as a “crutch” for artists to lean on for a cheap rush of emotions.
“I had a lot of judgment of that as a young songwriter, but that’s my own shit,” she acknowledges. “The fact that I had thought that was a copout made me figure out how to write songs from so many different angles, so I could go full circle around and write songs that just didn’t lean on ‘I feel this way, therefore X.’”
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On tracks like 'Make It Easy', which Sanborn says references their previous song 'Could I Be', Meath nods at her past and the cyclical nature of life itself. “Lift me up and out again / Like you did back when I was ten / World was smaller, but you knew it then,” she sings. Meath describes that song, along with 'What If' and 'Free', as the album’s three “tentpole” songs.
Not only does Meath recognize the cycles in her own life, but in the existence of Sylvan Esso. She says the work they did to finish the record and promote it has brought back the feeling of their earliest days together. Stirring visuals like the cryptic “What If” teaser or their 'Ferris Wheel' performance on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee are the silver lining of life in quarantine, as they’ve had to get clever and resourceful to spread 'Free Love' without the aid of concert halls and festival stages.
“It feels so similar to being a baby band in that all of a sudden we’re working with a crew of three and I’m doing my own makeup and we’re sleeping in our friend’s backyard so we can wake up at 4:30AM and go to the ocean to film the ‘What If’ teaser,” Meath says.
Though much of this year has been marked by a return to what Meath calls the band’s “scrappy” mentality, it was made significantly easier by the deep bond and shared knowledge that comes from not only being in a group for the better part of a decade, but of being in each other’s life every day. Meath says that her and Sanborn’s individual roles in Sylvan Esso have never been more fluid.
“It’s like we’ve been building a language this whole time with each other, and all of a sudden we’re both just now fully fluent,” she says.
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That mastery leads to moments on 'Free Love' that take previous highpoints on Sylvan Esso records just a little bit higher. 'Train' follows their 2017 song 'Radio' as a meta-musical moment, in which they are both referential and reverential to the pop music that has inspired them. Other tracks like “Frequency” and “Free” are more atmospheric than anything they’ve done before, sounding like they were almost recorded whole cloth from the kind of warmly lit stage the duo can’t wait to occupy again one day.
“Every now and then I have a flash of what getting to play this record will be like, and remember how it feels to play,” Meath says. “It’s like finding a lightbeam on your face or something.”
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'Free Love' is out now.
Words: Grant Rindner
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