North Carolina electro-genius duo Sylvan Esso has received their first Grammy nomination for their sophomore album, What Now. The album is an adventure that wends its way through the time and space that bridge the aching, arching gap between the heart and the head. The popping beats created by Nick Sanborn are perfect for the release of some pent-up energy and lyrics delivered by Amelia Meath that can incite contemplation even when you weren’t planning for it. Put together, each song is infectious in its own way, making What Now the sort of record that can be listened to straight through; afterwards, each song takes its turn as the one you want on repeat.
The album begins with “Sound,” wherein a melody sprouts out of the silence of what life was pre-What Now, with Amelia’s vocals becoming more and more perceptible. As the pitch gains strength, even the fuzzy silence behind it is in tune and rhythm. Then comes “The Glow,” with its solid eggbeater beats and in the background ether, sounds sliding, reminiscent of the air when you leave the city. Strings give the song an organic feel, as the lyrics address that feeling of euphoria that accompanies the inception of every good thing, before you even know it’s going to be a thing.
Rhythms pitch like underwater cricket players in “Die Young,” the hottest single from the album, according to the people who rate art by temperature. When the chorus hits, the melodi-beat is so thick and solid, it’s that delicious sound that one can wrap themselves in to deliver them from whatever momentary suffering they may be experiencing. Amelia sings of shortsighted plans, abandoned in the wake of some quantum entanglement.
As “Radio” begins, a perpetual melodic rhythm makes the senses tingle in anticipation of the bass and what may be the most astute songwriting on the entire album. The song is a jab at the Industry, where it’s hard for good artists to find fame while maintaining their integrity… and without sexualizing everything. The bridge is potent, with Amelia spilling her guts with a pinch of bitterness overpowered by her resolve to keep doing what she loves to do: Highway blues / and gasoline fumes / it’s all I seem to make while I’m playing my tunes / I know the rules / I ask for it too / but I just keep on yelling keep on running never stopping. I wonder if they’re vegetarian. The song feels like the wheels of progress, on a ride you never want to leave.
After the full sound of “Radio,” “Kick, Jump, Twist” begins quieter, with restrained vocals and blips and blonks that remind one of Mario throwing turtle shells at the bad guys. Amelia’s voice wavers and shimmies through the beat, like the armwork of a bellydancer, as she sings about losing yourself to the beat, however it may appear to motionless onlookers. When Nick delivers delicious pairs of bassy wa-wa, wa-wa beats, it’s like a pork belly soundwich. “Song” glides down from higher notes with beats slapping along lightly, like potato chips at the beach. Amelia sings of purpose while Nick creates a rolling soundscape with a symphonic feel.
Returning to those tantalizingly deeper beats, “Just Dancing” thumps like the heartbeat of every hopeful concertgoer, business starter, and dreamer. The lyrics seem to tell of Amelia and Nick’s process, building each song up like a Lincoln log cabin, performing in the zone, a team of two individuals in their own heads following their own tune, what serendipity it is that they intersect so well! Never stop, never stop, never stop starting, sings Amelia ardently. This being one of the songs toward the end of the album, that line hints at What Now being an auditory ouroboros.
Choral vocals in the chorus of “Signal,” pointing out the very thing that we’re all chasing (or should be), bring a feeling of unity to the track. This song is the tonka bean in the custard, scrumptious and complex. Then comes the quiet power of “Slack Jaw.” With Amelia’s voice on a pedestal of sparse beats, dripping like water off the leaves of a willow, she sings of a sense of wonder and awe at the machinations of a life well lived. Nick stays in the background, a trapeze artist’s net woven with ropes of awesome oscillations, supportive while remaining taut at a distance below.
What Now seamlessly slips into “Rewind,” the final track on the album, with an almost celebratory feeling. The song is like a victory lap taken with the intention of demonstrating that good can come from doing the same thing again and again, as long as you revisit the beginning each time.
Sylvan Esso are strong contenders for a Grammy this year, and if their music is any indication of their ethos, a win will only blast them further into the realm of magical musicianship, allowing them to help out some of their lesser-known but very talented friends along the way. What Now is an album brimming with wisdom you can dance to. Take a listen and look out for them on January 28th.