Sylvan Esso (photo by Elizabeth Weinberg, PR)
Coming out of Durham, North Carolina, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn formed Sylvan Esso in 2013 as a means for both artists to explore new musical terrains. At the time, Meath was one of the members of the folk-based trio Mountain Man. (She is still part of the band today.) Sanborn was an electronic music producer who also played bass in Megafaun. Together, the duo set out on a mission of combining emotionally complex subject matter with hooky and somewhat abstract electronic pop music.
They issued their self-titled debut album in 2014 and followed that three years later with What Now. In addition to those two albums, Sylvan Esso has also recorded numerous singles, an EP, and earlier this year, the couple released With, a live album accompanied by a film.
Now comes Free Love, which reflects the duo’s new, collaborative approach to songwriting. Now married, Meath and Sanborn tend to work more in unison, as opposed to their earlier projects which saw Meath concentrating solely on songwriting while Sanborn handled the programming side of things. Free Love mixes personal observations with topical ones, starting with “What If,” a brief commentary on contrasts (“What if end was begin?/Then would men be like mothers?”).
The slyly playful and slightly suggestive “Ferris Wheel” bubbles along at a spry pace, as does the quirky “Runaway,” which sounds like a video game being played on a dance floor. “Rooftop Dancing” has a nursery rhyme quality; conversely, “Free” is paper thin, with Meath’s whispered vocals accompanied by a minimalist bed of pulses. Occasionally, as in “What If," "Train,” and “Make It Easy,” the duo experiment with manipulated vocals.
At 29 minutes in length, Free Love whizzes by in a flash. All of the songs are light and effervescent with Meath’s tender, feathery vocals floating around and above the programmed bings, bangs, thumps, hums, and whirs. It’s dance music of the sparest, starkest kind. Pop music powered by D batteries.
One thing Free Love isn’t is cold and clinical. The lyrics always have a heart and soul, preventing the songs' electronics from zapping away any of Sylvan Esso’s humanity.
Listen to an FUV Live session with Sylvan Esso and Eric Holland's interview with Amelia Meath on Tuesday, September 29 at 9 p.m on 90.7, also streaming online.