Sylvan Esso – ‘Free Love’ review: a sonic tug-of-war that’s light on the duo’s trademark bops

On their third album the alt.dance act switch up their tried and tested earthy blueprint with mixed results

“At the heart of Sylvan Esso is this really fun argument,” says the duo’s singer Amelia Meath. “Nick [Sanborn – producer] wants things to sound unsettling, but I want you to take your shirt off and dance.”

Anyone who’s seen Sylvan Esso live can affirm their music does the latter, even if it’s dance music of the unconventional kind. Both Meath and Sanborn formed Sylvan Esso from the roots of folk bands (Mountain Man and Megafaun, respectively). Their starter-pack handling of earthy melodies shaped much of their electronic production, often resulting in skeletal, though rich melodic dance music for people who aren’t avid ravers. ‘H.S.K.T.’ and ‘Hey Mami’ from their 2014 debut, and ‘Radio’, ‘Kick Jump Twist’ and ‘Just Dancing’ from their last album, 2017’s ‘What Now?’, all make for joyful, indie disco bangers.

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It’s not surprising they’ve stripped things back to vary their output for album number three. Sylvan Esso aren’t devotees of subwoofer smashers; they have plenty of skittish and downtempo tracks in their repertoire. But ‘Free Love’ pulls greater focus on Meath’s narratives – here traversing climate change, apathy and love – thanks to Sanborn’s meeker beats. The pair’s refreshed writing process has likely influenced these formulaic tweaks. Meath formerly wrote the vocal melodies and lyrics alone, away from Sanborn’s beats and bass-making. Now married, the couple write more solidly as a unit.

Has the change-up worked? To some extent. ‘Rooftop Dancing’ is one of the many lean, intimate compositions on ‘Free Love’ (see too: ‘Free’, ‘What If’, ‘Make It Easy’) but is the only one that connects emotionally. “Making the jump from ledge to ledge/Long hair flying…/We’re rooftop dancing,” Meath sings, her story about neighbourhood spirit gleaned beautifully via plucked acoustics, shaker rattles and the chatter of kids outside.

‘Runaway’ and ‘Train’ trade in palpitating 8-bit synth wizardry, although ‘Train’ – like with vocoder-drenched opener ‘What If’ – hears the pair try something new with heavy vocal manipulation. It menacingly pits Meath’s “nothing in my brain” woes against believing that the banality of modern pop music “made me go insane”. An interesting experiment, though one that doesn’t fully land.

‘Ferris Wheel’, the record’s undeniable highlight, sees the duo tread familiar ground so resolutely that it’s a musical lovechild of debut album songs ‘Dreamy Bruises’ and ‘H.S.K.T’. “I can feel your eyes, find me in the crowd,” Meath sings of discovering her sexual power, draped on the memory of a fairground visit. That excitement buzzes with the song’s brilliant kinetic energy.

Despite editing the blueprint, however, the unison Sylvan Esso presumably sought by constricting their working parameters hasn’t quite bonded their music. Sanborn’s wish to make “unsettling” music versus Meath’s dancefloor desires isn’t a fresh friction; Sylvan Esso’s music has always courted a bit of both. But ‘Free Love’ sounds like a tug of war exertion without the fun, satisfying results of albums past.

Details

  • Release date: September 25
  • Record label: Loma Vista
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