Sylvan Esso is the embodiment of balance between two forces. Where Amelia Meath’s pristine vocals and Nick Sanborn’s masterful production weave together to make beautiful synth pop. Free Love, their latest LP finds both their voices moving along in tandem to explore complex emotions of love, dread and what it means to live free.
Meath’s soft tones provide the emotional core of the song, while Sanborn provides the groundwork of quirky synths and instruments to round out the whole picture. Their songs move between mainstream and contemporary pop, with melodies that make you want to sing along and grooves that urge you to move your feet. Except with a small distinction that’s uniquely their own, where modern pop is hellbent on using bombastic production to blast through your speakers, Sanborn uses a minimalist approach, content on having the listeners fill in the blanks, providing Meath’s voice ample space to shine.
This distinction also fits the narrative of their songs very well. Opener “What If” finds them poetically musing about the nature of life. “What if darkness was light / Undercover of bright?”, Meath sings, accompanied by spare synths that gradually bloom into crescendo. The single “Ferris Wheel” checks all the boxes when it comes to modern pop, with carefully placed hooks and payoffs one could expect in most radio hits. Yet it differentiates itself with its choice leaving a lot of negative space in the mix. Even as Sanborn peppers it with plenty of pads, synths and horns, it feels wide and open. A conundrum that keeps me engaged every time I listen to it.
Another highlight of this LP is its highly therapeutic songs, perfect for a world that’s under fire. “Numb” coerces you to shake off existential dread with groovy rhythms and whimsical bops that swings and twirls in a carousel of electronica. “Free” is a heartfelt song that explores “what it’s like to love anybody”, over soothing keys and a lo-fi tape effect. The track starts with a spoken “I love you” sharing a glimpse of the duo at the recording process, before serenading you with this magical lullaby. “Rooftop Dancing” is filled with vocal samples, acoustic strings and pads that slowly layer in like evening rainfall. Meath sings about dancing freely under the rain with sounds of children laughing in the background, urging you to shake off your inhibitions and free your inner child.
“Make it easy / make it plain / make it simple / make it rain.”, we hear in the final track of Free Love. Perhaps we’ve been taking it too hard on ourselves these days. Sylvan Esso knows how it feels, and they offer us a brief reprieve. Perhaps that’s all that we need.