Album review: Sylvan Esso’s ‘What Now’


Sylvan Esso’s “What Now” asks just that.  Following their 2015 breakout debut album, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn (a Milwaukee native!) had to fight their way through the turbulence of their newfound fame.  They also had to take stock of where they came from and figure out where they would go.

The first track, “Sound,” provides a perfect intro. From its slowly building, computerized vocals we really get a sense of what’s to come: lyrics such as “all you’ll hear is sound / all you’ll feel is sound / all you’ll be is sound.”

“The Glow” recalls a party. Friends’ names pop up all throughout the song — Phil, Meg, Allie and Micah all enjoyed the festivities. Strangely enough for Sylvan Esso’s usual synth-pop style, this song seems to have a very country feel. A highly harmonized synthesizer almost invokes the sound of an electronic accordion.

“Die Young” is a strange love song. Meath’s words give the impression that the narrator would rather not have fallen in love. I like the idea of a love song that’s more about the speaker than the lover.  Bonus: This song is immensely catchy.

“Radio” is my favorite song from this album.  Not only is it musically captivating, but it also has a topical theme.  The song itself, though being the perfect song to play on commercial radio stations, snubs the idea of a song made just for the radio.  The lyric “Slave to the radio — 3:30” suggests that the extremely radio-friendly song length is the only thing some producers have in mind when they make a song. Even the background composition sounds like people dialing into the request line.

“Kick Jump Twist” has definite twitch pop vibes. I’ll undoubtedly be bumping this song at my next party. When the bass hits during the chorus, it makes people want to move their feet.  The lyrical content is slightly heavier than the catchy tune would suggest.  Meath sings, “Sweating through the sequence / but they look good, yeah” and you feel a glimpse of what it feels like to be in the public eye.

“Song” has some acoustic guitar, breaking from Sylvan Esso’s roots of synthesizers and computerized beats. The change up of the background while maintaining familiar vocal melodies suits the band well.  This song feels intimate, like Meath is singing to you alone.

The lyric from “Just Dancing” “I’m faking it before I even touch the skin” is pretty scathing, and representative of this song. Although I love the concept behind the song, it has the most pop elements in it with excessive repetition and nothing much to differentiate it musically from the rest of the album or the rest of the field of pop acts out there today.

The beginning of “Signal” has you feeling like you’re in a spa.  Then the bass hits and you’re smacked with memories of youth.  The listener feels part of her world, in her bedroom with her as she asks, “was that a satellite you drew, my love?” “Signal” is full of hometown imagery — a bedroom, cars on a highway, a dog in a junkyard, all contributing to the reflective sentiment of the song.

In “Slack Jaw,” Meath’s vocals are soft and tender.  She sounds vulnerable, revealing to us how she can’t tell if it’s “a sign or just a landmine?” This song perfectly describes how it feels to be stuck in your own head.

“Rewind,” the final song of “What Now,” adds another sound to its repertoire.  We hear tribal drums as the vocals begin, then more acoustic guitar! This song perfectly sums up the entire album: remembering the past while planning for the future.  “Do it again, light up the room” is not only the main lyric in “Rewind,” but also exactly what Sylvan Esso did in this album.

The Good: We get another round of Sylvan Esso’s catchy riffs and feel a new, more mature style with added timbres and nuances.

The Bad: At times, the duo could have further differentiated their sound between songs.

The Ugly: “Just Dancing” could have been written by any producer in the business.

My Picks: “Die Young,” “Radio” and “Slack Jaw”

Check out the video for “Die Young” here: