Sylvan Esso began as a chance meeting, followed by a couple of risky cross-country relocations that coalesced into ten songs. It became very clear early on that these songs were the product of sheer alchemy; Amelia’s effortlessly acrobatic melodic reflections complimented Nick’s dynamic compositions in ways that were as unlikely as they were undeniable. When it started it was whisper quiet, a slight frame, something almost domestic but gleaming with excitement. Then it made contact with the air.
The duo found themselves on a three-year worldwide swirl of planes, buses, vans, venues, festival stages, hotel rooms, radio stations and television studios. It’s difficult to draw distinctions. We frequently have to work as a group to remember the chronology and version of events, but the stories that make us howl with laughter or shake our heads in bewilderment are crystal clear. Throughout this process there was an underlying truth that remained this shred of creative excitement in what was at times a monotonous grind: that this is just the beginning. But what’s next? Surely it’s not just these ten songs?
Then something happened on a summer afternoon in New York as Nick tuned a broken synthesizer to the pitch of Amelia’s voice while she sang a new mantra. It seemed fitting that Sylvan Esso’s first implementation of the process was for the human to tune the machine, not the other way around. The lines between instrument and voice, programmed and improvised, Amelia and Nick, began to blur. This reverse auto-tune created the sonic blueprint for new music and seemed to articulate something the band was searching for; a need to connect with the light of humanity in our overly stimulated world; seeking the signal amidst the noise. Over the next 18 months the band constructed and shaped these songs at their studio in Durham, North Carolina as well as extended stays in the paralyzing rural Wisconsin winter and the dry desert heat of downtown Los Angeles.
What once sounded small and modest has grown to squall and surge without boundary, but never at the expense of its own intimacy or honesty. There’s been an awakening as to what a Sylvan Esso song can be. The whole thing still shifts and quakes as if the kinetic energy of its own making might send it skittering off but it stays right there perched on a busted flight case on a keyboard stand that’s been lost countless times yet somehow always recovered. The music pushes air. Sylvan Esso is a living breathing thing that exists in the real world.
At its core, this is an album that was created against the backdrop of 2016, which means that it is inherently grappling with the chaos of a country seething inward on itself. Time in the lion’s den gave way to seared indictments of the music industry and narcissistic mass media culture. When the present seems unstable and the future is a pastiche of foreboding it can be natural to turn to the past, to search for some solace in the skipping CDs and rewinding VHS tapes of one’s childhood, but you can never go back again. Never one to shy away from duality, Amelia muses true love as an unavoidable deterrent for a death-wish; it’s a record about falling in love and learning that it won’t save you. It’s an album about meeting your own personal successes but feeling the fizzling embers of the afterglow rather than the roar of achievement; about the crushing realization that no progress may ever be permanent. There are no grand exits or Hollywood endings, life just goes on. Perhaps it is in this truth that we can begin to extend connectivity to one another, free from our own need for narrative. This isn’t just pop music that refuses to be dumb, anymore, this is protest music that refuses to not be personal.
In the final moments of 2016, packed like sardines on the patio of our favorite neighborhood bar Nick and Amelia looked at me wide-eyed and said “it’s done.” They were referring to their new album, but I’m still not sure what punctuation they intended to conclude that statement. I think it was a decree. Or were they asking me? Whatever it was, we all clinked glasses and turned the page to a new year. Or did anything change at all? I think we look older than we did, but I don’t feel any different. They probably don’t feel any different, but I can see how they’ve grown and changed. It’s a family now, one that has a lot of miles under its belt- and it’s growing. When I drive through the grey slate winter light and listen to this album, this new fleet of ten songs, I hear the collections of moments that have led us, all of us, here — ‘What Now.’