On Amelia Meath and Nick Sandborn’s third album as Sylvan Esso, Free Love, the group pares down their sound even further while expanding their emotional reach. The precise electronic-pop beats of Sylvan Esso’s most prominent prior tracks, like “Coffee” and “Radio,” propped up irresistible lyrical hooks while creating a unique aural texture. Free Love contains a few of those hooks, albeit slightly less than their prior album What Now. That 2017 release was their most pop so far, with “Radio,” “Die Young,” and “Kick Jump Twist,” offering up irresistible and immediate hooks for a wide audience. However, while Free Love doesn’t have as much of that, it feels compelling as a distillation of Sylvan Esso’s sound. Simultaneously, the band continues what they started with “Radio,” by rejecting the pop mantle while making what many deem to be pop music.
One of the most striking elements of Free Love is its length. At just under thirty minutes, this is a slim album. However, that doesn’t note a lack of quality. Rather, Meath and Sandborn have put in meticulous care to the production of this album. The result is efficient and effective, rather than rushed. Sandborn’s music, always precise and intimate, is even more so here. All the better to highlight Meath’s vocals and her unique tone that feels sharp and soft at once. This is illustrated immediately with “What If,” an introductory song that introduces the album’s first of many surreal images. Meath imagines a world turned opposite, “the oceans turn to clouds/soggy birds raining down/from the sky/having drowned.”
The first track’s sparseness is continued throughout but most closely repeated in the closing track, “Make it Easy,” which provides a fitting conclusion to the album. In the first track, Sylvan Esso essentially describes what existing feels like now: everything is wrong, nothing makes sense, but it continues anyway as if it was always this way. “Make it Easy” brings forth the wish the band expressed through Apple Music, to find a way back to loving and to be able to know this “simple” thing called love. “Make it Easy” is made compelling with just an electric crackle humming underneath and building to a crescendo. These simple musical flourishes are littered throughout Free Love, making it an ever-evolving and surprising listen.
“Ring,” for instance, is an early track that deftly uses “ring” to refer to the cyclical nature of a musician’s life, the physical ring of commitment, and the ringing in the ears that signals tinnitus. One ring is often sacrificed in the pursuit of another. As the music layers and build up, it always comes back to zero and then starts over again, mirroring the cycle they sing about. At the same time, clever lyrics like “every day is another date/and a date is a show day” highlight different but related meanings of the word “date,” as they do with “ring” in the title.
“Ferris Wheel” arrives early in Free Love and is the most immediately accessible song on the album. Here, Meath excels at creating mood and imagery with her delivery of relatively simple lyrics. The lines, “When I’m slamming in my dancing shoes/ asphalt’s hot and my knees all bruised,” can’t help but conjure up the spirit of an ecstatic, carefree young woman expressing herself precisely as she wants to. The up-and-down, playful delivery works in tandem with the music to create a relentless vibe that radiates the heat of a summer evening. In a similar vein, “Rooftop Dancing” comes near the end of the album and feels like the late evening comedown after “Ferris Wheel.” Here, the sultry nature of summer heat comes through in the more relaxed delivery of the song.
Not long after “Ferris Wheel,” however, comes “Train,” which is even more of a pop rebuke than “Radio” was in 2017. Here Meath sings, “Pop music makes me go insane/ four on the floor and the tracks keep changing,” alongside deeply relatable but pithy phrases like “I’m not aggressive, I’m just underpaid.” At the same time, a deep vocal distortion is used to support Meath during a few choice lines, like “nothing in my brain” and “I’m gonna ride that train.” The extent to which Sylvan Esso pokes at the vapidity of Pop Music is made paradoxically enjoyable by their relentless use of the techniques they reject. It’s a witty entry on the album, seeming to say, “we’re not pop, and aren’t trying to be, but we know you’re going to say we are anyway.”
Every song on Free Love is compelling in its way. Even during brief songs, the subject matter feels rich, as in “Free,” in which the singer expresses love for her imagined self, seen in so many other minds but her own. There are handfuls of treasure to be dug up on Free Love, although the gold may not shine as bright as you expect it to on its first appearance. But brush it off, look again, and you’ll find an album that rewards repeated listens and yet another adjustment to our expectations for each new Sylvan Esso release.