Sylvan Esso appraises the music industry with sharp wit and mild anger on What Now. Their second album seethes with shade, mostly toward the music box in the car. The concept relies on the duo’s ability to resist mainstream success but at the same time, develop radio-friendly material in order to attack radio-friendly material. Its deceptively simple exterior has hidden quips not just in the lyrics and production, but in the way the tracks are devised to make fun of them for needing to sell out without selling out whatsoever. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, who continue to sound nothing like their previous projects, bring about their aggression in under-the-top fashion, striking mass production with blatant, almost absurd, not-so-innocent, venom-filled words.
“Sound” starts the album off with a smattering of radio static and Meath’s barely made-out vocals cooing “I was gonna write a song for you…that all you’ll here is sound” on repeat until her voice slowly becomes clearer–as if she completely clouds the entire head space with just her sound. It begins to scratch finely against the industry, making way for “Radio” to completely obliterate that popular way of life. Actually written out of frustration, Meath throws “Now don’t you look good sucking American dick, you’re so surprised they like you, you’re so cute and so quick” without hesitation. And of course “Radio” is by far their most radio-friendly, hitting the 3 minutes and 32 seconds mark—mainstream tunes are apparently constructed with “three point three oh” in mind. It’s hard not to sing-along and it’s hard to sing-along because they’re calling you out for being a “slave” to that kind of product. Katy Perry might’ve recalled a similar nature with “Chained to the Rhythm” but she is the product and thus is “faking the truth in a new pop song.” Sylvan Esso’s challenge for you to not sing the lyrics of “Radio” back to them is indeed a set-up for failure.
Dark humor reaches a new high in “Die Young.” Meath expresses her annoyance with an unexpected love by saying “I was gonna die young, Now I gotta wait for you, hun.” It takes a funnier approach to a rather serious issue dealing with suicide, and bends it in half. Unfortunately, I know a person who has considered such a path until he found love. I don’t know if he now laughs about his dark consideration, but I’m sure he doesn’t regret not going through with it. It’s “Die Young” that blatantly tells you that there’s no subject off the table and no shortage of drama for the duo, making the whole album absolutely limitless.
Almost what “Sound” was trying to convey, “Song” also wants to fill you up with noise, in this case, love-tinged noise. It has a laid back dreamy chorus with percolating bass cutting through most of the track. Essentially, “Song” wants to make you the love song, not you listening to a love song. But amidst the wonderful feelings contained in “Song,” Meath still finds sadness in “Slack Jaw,” the more minimalist ode to “What Now?”of the bunch. An otherwise-irritating beeping sound goes in and out, and there’s a sweeping of atmospheric static and incredibly light synth-y humming underneath the vocals. It is so woefully lighthearted you’d just want to squeeze the hell out of it.
There’s really no other album I can think of that reigns close to what Sylvan Esso accomplished here. It couldn’t possibly be any personal. It couldn’t be any more creative. And finally, it couldn’t be more self-aware. It is a delightful, artistic review of society and its interaction with music. Oddly enough, it creates a friend who’s shoulder you want to cry on every time an obstacle appears. Their self-titled album was good, but What Now is better. LOVE IT.