Since their self-titled debut in 2014, Sylvan Esso delivered a steady stream of folksy, lilting melodies backed by heart-pounding electronics, songs that sound right at home in an Anthropologie dressing room or in a dark bar after midnight. Amelia Meath’s candid vocals meet Nick Sanborn’s quivering, swirling synth, and it sounds like flirtation, the easy partnership of two genres coming together. On No rules Sandythe latest in the band, they forego that comfort for discovery, and the result is invigorating, leaving air in the halls where they’ve produced the world’s finest, most flavorful dance music.
Opener “Moving” sets the tone, a quivering ode to compensatory numbness. Meath’s flat, confessional style matches the content of the song, in which she asks, “How can I be moved / When everything’s moving?” It’s the less pointed counterpart to 2016’s “Radio,” trading a searing critique of sex and consumerism for anxiety and anhedonia, an emotional issue that matches its glitchy sound.
This discomfort is, against all expectations, the most appreciated departure of Sylvan Esso. Where previous albums have been seductive or playful, No rules Sandy feels a bit more ragged, carries more dirt under her fingernails. This leaves room for discovery through repeated listening, less polishing and more process. “Your Reality”, a mishmash of strings, patches and incantatory melody, illustrates this texture. It’s nice to witness a band expand, follow a signature style into more exploratory territory.
The album’s highlight, however, is the driving “Echo Party,” whose looping bridges build on a dubious and timely chorus: “There’s a lot of people dancing downtown / Yeah, we’re falling all / But some remain where they were dropped.” Meath’s flat, unaffected delivery adds to the song’s eerie power. Like Nora dancing the tarantella in A doll’s house, it’s a nod to dance as a bodily liberation, a way to circumvent darkness. Sanborn’s circular and scathing synth forms the perfect complement, a syncopated rhythm intertwined with wobbly basses. It conjures up other late-summer jams that manage to distill the present while evoking dance music’s past — Drake’s “Massive,” Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul.” At their best, Sylvan Esso always plays with duality – up and down (see 2014’s “Coffee”), movement and stagnation, containment and release.
“Sunburn” returns to a proven sound, less propulsive and more sleepwalking. “Didn’t Care” is a bright, pop track about fate that needs an urgent hit. Still, No rules Sandy wanders into darker rooms, and it’s a welcome departure from the band’s previous formula, an unprecedented exploration of time.
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