Not for nothing is Sylvan Esso‘s fourth album titled ‘No Rules Sandy’: despite picking up a Grammy nomination for 2020’s ‘Free Love’, indie electro-poppers Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath have tossed away any loyalty to previous sounds. They are “not trying to fit into the mould”, as Meath has put it, and “happily being our freak selves”.
The album lifts its name from new track ‘Your Reality’, on which Meath sings “Let me remember how to live my life / Were there rules originally? / Or are we learning how to be / Surreal but free?” over pulsating synth and strings arrangements as the phrase “no rules Sandy” echoes in the background. The duo have said ‘Your Reality’ was the impetus for the rest of the album, allowing them to wonder, as Sanborn explained: “How weird we could take it — how bare and strange could something be?”
Sylvan Esso answer that question by creating space throughout ‘No Rules Sandy’, taking a fresh, stripped-back approach to their music without relying solely on the upbeat rhythms and driving drum beats they’re known for. On the likes of lead single ‘Sunburn’, the co-producers focus primarily on Meath’s ethereal vocals, allowing for an immersive, imaginative sound that at some points even enlists bicycle bells and cash register-like chimes.
There’s a sense of intimacy across the 16-track collection – see the voicemails that punctuate the tracks, along with the sounds of children and birds chirping outside of their Durham, North Carolina recording studio. “Do you think that people who aren’t astrologically compatible can actually succeed in a relationship?” a friend asks Meath over voicemail before vibrating track ‘Cloud Walker’ kicks in.
Acoustic closer ‘Coming Back To You’ represents the album’s greatest distance from Sylvan Esso’s previous sound as they space out the words “I am a root / I am the leaf / I am the tree / that grew beneath” before landing comfortably in the refrain: “I’m coming back you.” The track summarizes their newfound sensibility and is a homecoming hymn for the duo, who have described ‘No Rules Sandy’ as “who we actually are.”
Unlike many albums driven into existence by a post-pandemic reality, Sylvan Esso’s fourth offering doesn’t dwell in solitude, despair, or desire for escape. Instead, it resides in what is left after the darkness clears: tighter connections to the surrounding world and the people who populate it. To borrow Meath and Sanborn’s own words, the album is a bold and defiant example of what could happen when you walk back into the world, “wilder and stranger” than before.
Release date: August 12
Record label: Loma Vista Recordings