With Sylvan Esso’s core duo—Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn—each coming to the project from other established bands, it isn’t terribly surprising that their first two albums together were created with a clear division of labor.
On both 2013’s self-titled debut and 2017’s What Now, Meath—a member of the folk trio Mountain Man—wrote lyrics and melodies, while the music and beats were formulated by Sanborn, who played in the psych-roots band Megafaun. When they came together, there was a hint of friction between the former’s earthy hymns and the latter’s glitchy bedroom bangers that set Sylvan Esso apart from many of their contemporaries. Where other bands sounded mass-produced for millennial ears and licensing syncs, Sylvan Esso felt more handmade, intimate and interesting—and human.
Which brings us to the band’s third album, Free Love, hailed in accompanying promotional materials as “Sylvan Esso’s first true ‘band’ record: two voices fused together.” Presumably, this means Meath and Sanborn—now married—ditched the division and, for the first time, worked on the lyrics, melodies, music and beats as a single creative unit. Unsurprisingly, this new arrangement smooths out the edges of their sound, but it also strips away some of the character that made Sylvan Esso stand out.
This is not to say that Meath and Sanborn aren’t still capable of crafting addictively catchy indie dance-pop. They definitely are. Exhibit A is the album’s first single, “Ferris Wheel,” an aural sip of effervescent energy drink that delivers everything one might want from Sylvan Esso: sparkling staccato synths, a burbling bass line, a vocal melody that skitters like a jump-rope chant as Meath conjures up sweaty summer dance party vibes: “I’m swaying from side to side in the neon lights,” she singsongs. “Sainted halo underworld goth vibes / You’ll do fine for tonight.”
Other highlights on Free Love include “Ring,” a slice of softly glowing neon electro-pop that recalls the like-minded Canadian duo Purity Ring, and another nod to playground melody in “Rooftop Dancing,” which feels like a deep exhale at sunrise after a night out running the streets of Megalopolis, U.S.A. And at the center of the tracklist, the album’s mellowest song, “Free,” is also one of its most interesting, as Meath all but whispers her way through a reflection on love and illusion while synth chords (but no beat) gently pulse around her.
The middle of the album, though, lines up too many tunes that never catch fire, and thus run together. “Train” has the right energy, but comes off a bit clunky. “Numb” builds to a cool section of wobbling synths, but the climb is too steep for the payoff. “Frequency” attempts something similar but seems to stall out. Where half of Free Love leaps from the speakers, the other half fades into a blur of blips, bloops and pitter-patter.
To its credit, Free Love does close on a strong note with “Make It Easy,” a meditative track built around a marching glitch so minimalist, it sounds like it could be the runout groove on a vinyl LP. “Just like a record spinning ‘round. Oh can’t you hear it? That loving sound,” Meath sings, before repeating “it’s playing now” 27 times as the song crescendos into distorted noise. It’s a beautiful moment, and a perfect ending to an album with its share of both high points and flaws.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.