Sylvan Esso is presenting their fourth album as “the beginning of a new period”, which is something that a lot of bands say about a lot of their albums a lot of the time. In this case, though, there’s a case to be made. Their last album, ‘Free Love’, took the two-piece’s playful indietronica down a largely uninteresting rabbit hole, stripping back their sound without replacing it with much, and failing to have much of an impact on fans. This time, it’s like they’re making up for lost time: ‘No Rules Sandy’ lives up to its title by trying a little bit of everything, embracing the band’s ability to douse their songs in just about every kind of rhythm, every timbre of synth.
The urgency is there in the album’s creation, too, which Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath crammed into the beginning of the year and a makeshift studio in LA. Strangely, nothing sounds rushed here: where tracks like ‘Free’ and ‘Runaway’ on their last effort sounded empty and constrained, “No Rules Sandy” is packed with elaborately scaffolded production, from the ringing doorbells of ‘Sunburn’ to the strings – both drawn and twung – that pulsate under Meath’s voice on ‘Your Reality’. It’s the BPM that hurries you along, starting with the juddering beats and fiddly synths of ‘Moving’, the album’s opener. “How can I be moved when everything’s moving?” Meath asks, before answering her own question with a series of simple chord changes that gradually swallow the song’s frantic pace.
This interplay – between beats and chords, between unsettling synths and the soft fabric of Meath’s endlessly settling voice – is what Sylvan Esso do best, and ‘No Rules Sandy’ has it in spades. On ‘Echo Party’, barely articulated vocals take the edge off a two-step garage beat and wobbly bass, while ‘How Did You Know’ revisits the skipping CD effect they used two years ago for ‘Frequency’, this time anchoring it to a delicate, beautifully anxious song about self-discovery.
Or something like that. Meath’s voice is all open vowels on these songs, so it’s hard to tell what she’s singing a lot of the time – which is fine, as the “what” isn’t really the point. ‘Didn’t Care’ is one of the few instances where her voice takes centre stage, and it’s the poppiest track here, an instantly loveable combination of bizarre, twitchy sounds with ecstatic songwriting. It’s a standout – but it’s one standout among many, on an album that never fails to take you off guard with each new song. The end result of that frenetic time in California shows how a change of pace can create magic; this is Sylvan Esso’s best album yet.
Words: Tom Kingsley