I have previously confessed to having a weakness for songs about songs. The inherent meta-based tomfoolery is enjoyable, but I think there’s another layer to it. Responses to pop songs — great pop songs, anyway — tend to run deep, tapping into emotions that shiver beneath the surface, anxious for an outlet. When a song directly acknowledges that abiding desire, it is asserting the value of its purpose in the most automatically convincing manner. If the song also manages to be catchy, enticing, disarming, then it approaches the realm of the pop culture magic. What Now, the sophomore album from North Carolina duo Sylvan Esso, is jam-packed with songs like that.
Even an inattentive perusal of the track listing of What Now reveals how preoccupied Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn with documenting their love of pop music: “Sound,” “Radio,” “Song,” “Just Dancing,” “Rewind.” And that’s without noting that “The Glow” is specifically about Meath’s transcendent joy that came with listening to favorite music in her teen-aged years (“Walking back from the show/ With my heart in echo/ So alone in the snow/ And Phil singing just to me, only”). If there’s a touch of the generic to those song titles, the contents of the actual tracks more than compensates. An exploratory verve dominates the album. Sylvan Esso keep bending their electronic melodies in wholly unexpected ways, sometimes shifting within individual tracks to create an extra frisson.
Meath brings a similarly restless dynamic to her vocals. Sometimes her tone is velvety and rich, like a less otherworldly Fiona Apple (as on “Slack Jaw”) and sometimes it’s been manipulated in such a way that it recalls the tender android singing of Laurie Anderson in days of yore (as on album opener “Sound”). As with every other aspect of What Now, it’s simultaneously consistently and thrillingly unpredictable.
Fittingly, Sylvan Esso demonstrates a remarkable facility with crafting immediate pop songs, maybe none better than the single “Die Young.” It takes a wildly unique approach to the well-worn theme of transformative, unexpected love, positioning the newfound devotion as a wrench in the romanticized plans of youthful self-destruction. Over a layer of slinky synth sounds, Meath sings, “I was gonna die you/ Now I gotta wait for you,” making it sound like a wry, wonderful pledge. Knowing that pop songs as good as this are still possible in the world, it’s no wonder Sylvan Esso made a chipper, dance-inducing paean to the power of music.