The last song on Sylvan Esso’s 2014 self-titled debut is appropriately called “Come Down.” After nine tracks of inventive electro-pop, synth wizard Nick Sanborn manipulates the octaves of singer Amelia Meath’s voice over soft, pitched buzzing until 45 seconds of fading feedback closes out the record.
Three years later, a mild crackle opens the duo’s ambitious new album, What Now. “Sound” fuzzes and glitches for over 30 seconds before lyrical traces begin to emerge from the sonic rubble. By the sixth repetition, the layers fall away, the vocals crystalize and only Meath’s epigram remains.
“I was gonna write a song for you
Gonna sing it out loud
Gonna sing it at such decibels that
All you’ll hear is sound and
All you’ll feel is sound and
All you’ll be is sound”
Playing the two records in succession, “Sound” sounds like the epilogue to “Come Down.” Or maybe it’s the sound of the predecessor moving toward its new beginning.
On a recent afternoon over avocado toasts (his with beets, hers with bacon) at an Australian restaurant in Lower Manhattan, Sanborn lets out a Napoleon Dynamite-worthy “Yesshhh” in response to that notion. Meath simultaneously throws her arms up with glee, emitting a drawn out “Thank youuu!”
The two pride themselves on intentionality in their work as Sylvan Esso, a project they began almost accidentally four years ago in Durham, N.C. Each transition—from album to album, song to song, verse to chorus—is made with a purpose they hope listeners seek out in their music. As for “Come Down” and “Sound,” Sanborn describes them as such: “It’s like the last thing fell asleep and this is the sleepy waking up.”
Like their musical transitions, the conversational cues between Sanborn and Meath are naturally fluid. Describing the creation of “Sound,” Sanborn begins, “She had written that loop…” before Meath interjects to clarify: “While I was peeing.” Pausing to laugh into his Texas-sized toast, Sanborn continues, “She sang it that many times and then…I immediately wrote that chord progression to it.”
Even if “Sound” is a tenuous buffer between projects, it certainly served as a breakthrough during a particularly tough real-life transition for the band. “When that song came together—it came together in one afternoon—it was a light bulb,” says Sanborn.
“Like a signpost for the record,” adds Meath, as the two complete each other’s sentences.
“The minute we had that, we knew it had to be the first song, and then it informed every other decision we made about the record.”
“It’s like the first record was laying out a vocabulary, and this record is like using that language,” says Meath.
“It was the first street light at the dawn.”
“Like, this is what it’s supposed to sound like,” he says, attempting to recapture the ah-ha moment.
It’s difficult to tell a story of growing pains and sophomore slumps without using double clichés, but Sylvan Esso admits they succumbed to that tired trope. Returning to Durham after two-and-a-half years of touring behind their debut record—which achieved more commercial success than either individual’s previous outfit (Meath was one-third of the Appalachian-inspired Mountain Man and Sanborn played bass in Megafaun) —they tried to cope with their new personal and political realities. They hibernated. They panicked. Occasionally, they despaired. “But mostly,” says Meath, “we wrote through it.”
Sanborn elaborates on the dualities of that time. On the plus side, he says, “Both of us got the thing we had always wanted: We were in a band that wasn’t a job, that we could live off of, and that people liked. Then when that cycle ended, there was this sudden, very anxiety-ridden realization that life is not a movie. Nothing stops… You don’t ride off into the sun.
“And then on the negative end,” he continues, it’s the realization that no fight is ever over. Everything’s a fight against entropy. And that’s forever!”
The songs on What Now don’t sound borne of frustration and hopelessness. Rather, they teem with newfound love, pride in individuality and identity, and biting reflections of modern society. After the precise beginning of “Sound,” What Now expands into the delightful pairing of “Die Young” and last year’s grand return single, “Radio.” In the former, a whopping wub-wub bass-line asserts itself most prominently and immediately. But in the background, wispy treble lines flit upward as Meath proffers her version of a love song about wanting to die young before meeting someone and realizing she would rather wait to live with that person. In the latter, the descending triplets of the intro loop into themselves like a portal into another dimension. Meath takes an onomatopoeic approach to singing about the vicious clickbait cycle of news and how their burgeoning fame perpetuates their place within it.
Side A of What Now is more assertive than Side B, but the record still manages to feel like a complete, if varied, 10-song work. On “Kick Jump Twist,” Sanborn incorporates glugs and beeps in that sound like they could be from Super Mario Bros. (which makes more sense after learning that their band name is a reference to the video game Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery). “Song” is the closest thing the duo has ever written a mainstream, if throwback, pop gem that could fit comfortably alongside Duran Duran’s 1982 record, Rio.
Sanborn and Meath readily share that the sonic differences throughout What Now stem from their improved collaborative process. As a result, the work as a whole reflects that growth. “I think the songs we wrote felt like they were asking for different things than the last record. The last record feels more like a statement of purpose and a mission statement, a set of ideas,” says Sanborn before pausing to think. “This record sounds like…
“...Us actually doing it?!” marvels Meath.
“This one actually feels like songs to me,” Sanborn counters, and they’re off again.
“It’s like the first record was laying out a vocabulary and this record is like using that language.”
“Yes. That is the better way of saying that. Scratch what I said. Use what she said!”