Album Reviews

Album Review: Sylvan Esso’s Free Love Is Less Weird, More Refined, and Certainly Still Full of Bops

Eight years of any sort of relationship is certainly not easy. Friendships rock back and forth from the focal point of our lives to the background in the quietest of corners. Lovers come and go, and people you think that will be in your life forever usually end up not being that way. For Sylvan Esso, eight years of creating music together and four years of a (quietly shared) marriage can certainly create strain if not managed well, but they seem to be doing just fine.

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn’s story starts back in 2012, when Meath was performing in the trio called Mountain Men. Shortly after, Meath met electronic music producer Sanborn, who also played bass in a band called Megafaun, at a music venue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Meath, who had created vocals to a song called “Play It Right,” asked Sanborn to reimagine the track in his own way, which eventually blossomed into what Sylvan Esso is today. Meath and Durham eventually started working on music in Durham, North Carolina. According to a Reddit AMA the duo did back in 2015, “Sylvan Esso” was named after a character in a game called “Swords and Sworcery.” 

Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut album was released in May 2014 via Partisan Records (Cigarettes After Sex, Laura Marling, IDLES), peaking at 39 on the Billboard 200. In spring 2015, Sylvan Esso debuted at Coachella, eventually landing gigs at festivals like Firefly, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, and more that same year. 

“Radio” was released as the band’s first single in 2016, followed by “Kick Jump Twist” and “Die Young” in early 2017. Their next album, titled What Now, dropped in April, and received overwhelmingly positive reviews. It eventually got the duo their first Grammy nomination in the “Best Dance/Electronic Album.” They lost to Kraftwerk’s 3-D The Catalogue. 

Sylvan Esso spent the next couple years touring extensively, performing for their own headlining shows, festival slots, late-night shows and more. After the COVID-19 pandemic exploded across the world, the band decided to take the time to finalize their next album, Free Love, which was announced on July 21, 2020.  Meath and Sanborn have both commented on the impact that their fall 2019 tour, titled WITH, had on creating Free Love, stating that it wouldn’t have come to fruition without itwhich included sold out shows in New York City, Los Angeles, Durham, and more. According to a press release, “The tour scrambled and expanded the idea of Sylvan Esso, presenting the group as a 10-piece ensemble, featuring members of Bon Iver, Wye Oak, Hiss Golden Messenger and others, exploring their repertoire in wholly new ways. Free Love was only half-written at that point, and it emboldened Nick and Amelia to double down on their creative impulses.”

WITH was later was released in April 2020 as a live concert film and album.

“What if end was begin” opens the album on “What If,” a short, quiet introductory track that foreshadows the rest of the album. It almost feels like Amelia is singing a poem she wrote on a napkin over random bits of electronic beats, an accidental and unplanned perfect fit.

The next track, “Ring,” sounds like “The Glow,” which also happens to be the second track on What Now. But if you’re really looking for a sense of familiarity, “Ferris Wheel” is your best bet. Released as the first single of the project earlier this year, “Ferris Wheel” is the most reminiscent of Sylvan Esso’s past singles (RE: “Radio” and “H.S.K.T”). The track is “about discovering your power and awkwardly figuring out how to wield it. It’s for the summer,” the band stated in a press release.

There’s not much room for filler tracks on What Now, but the next track, “Numb,” feels closest to a filler track. Though sonically interesting, the lyrics and melody fall flat, and feel like a lackadaisical attempt, with incredibly repetitive lyrics that don’t do much other than cause the listener to feel uneasy. “Free” is the next track, the quietest of the album, and quite possibly my favorite. Perhaps it’s the lyrics or the way that it reminds me of me of “Liability” by Lorde, but it’s hauntingly beautiful.

“Free” was released as the last single ahead of the album. The band stated in a description for the corresponding video that the song was “Written all in one go — one of those magical moments of songwriting that happens once every hundred songs. Nick knew it was the center piece of the record the minute I showed it to him. “We should call the record Free Love.” It’s the center of the record — a song about being obscured by someone’s loving impression. A mirror on a mirror.”

“Runaway” is also reminiscent of the band’s previous work. The first track that came to mind after a first listen is “PARAD(w/me)E”—a standalone single from 2018. Though similar, I think it falls flat in comparison. The album ends with two slower tracks, “Rooftop Dancing” (the second single) and “Make It Easy.”

While the closing track is certainly enjoyable in its own right, it feels like an abrupt end to an album that could have closed in a different way, like an a mismatched bookend. The first 60 percent or so of Free Love is much more intriguing and engaging with the listener.

The duo’s work in the past has been divided in the past, with Meath working on lyrics and melodies, Sanborn on chords and beats. While this idea still feels present in Free Love, it simultaneously succumbs to the bigger idea as a fully-explored collaboration. Free Love is short, straight to the point, and subdued, a less in-your-face approach to the previous albums which have been full of songs that have given Sylvan Esso the notoriety of creating unconventional bangers. Despite Free Love’s softer nature, it doesn’t feel entirely off-track. Sylvan Esso (2014), What Now (2017), and now Free Love all tap out at 10 songs, 38 minutes, 36 and now 32 minutes. As each project seemingly gets shorter, Sylvan Esso’s vision for their music gets tighter.

It’s evident that Sylvan Esso’s bond as a duo—as friends, lovers, and creators—has evolved and will continue to do so. Their past experience touring and having the ability to expand the limits of their sound inevitably impacted the creative process on Free Love, while ironically subduing their weirdness. But less weird isn’t bad, it’s just different. No artist is required to make one sound forever, and shouldn’t be expected to make the same sounding music as the world continues to change around them.

Free Love drops tomorrow on Loma Vista Recordings.

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