One of the many charms Lush, the 2018 debut album from Lindsey Jordan and her band Snail Mail, was its dated quality. Though a musical highlight in the 21st century, Lush sounded like it could’ve debuted in the 1980s during the early peaks of R.E.M. or Sonic Youth. The lax energy, downbeat sound and fuzzy guitar riffs in Snail Mail’s music sounded so dead-on with the indie rock of decades past, one could wonder how the band would evolve. Do they stay a nostalgia act wallowing in days gone by through a sound past its prime? Or do they catch-up with the times and see if their lyrics still stand out among louder instrumentals?
Valentine, the band’s second album, has thankfully found a happy middle ground between the stripped-down guitar rock of their debut and taking a sonic leap into the new millennium. Produced by Jordan and Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Big Red Machine), the 32-minute record sounds cleaner and prettier than its predecessor with occasional flourishes of keyboards and orchestral arrangements. “Light Blue” is the prime example, a gorgeous acoustic ballad with the same blockbuster production afforded to Taylor Swift. Jordan’s hushed rasp sounds incredible backed by crystal-clear guitar plucking, haunting piano keys and a mournful string section. A similar arrangement is heard on album closer “Mia” that sounds as if Frank Ocean composed the closing scene of an A24 teen drama. There’s also some curious experimentation occasionally backing Jordan’s vulnerable lyrics.
“Forever (Sailing)” is a freak combination of emo and reggae, with island guitar riffs and head-nodding electric drums mixed with ghostly harmonies and a moody background organ. “Madonna” owes a lot of its modern folk heartbreak to The Black Keys with its thick bass line and guitar-drum interplay. There’s a great instrumental build-up to the chorus of “Automate,” from the simple acoustic strumming to a full haze of electric guitar fuzz. Even the songs that sound close to those on Lush (“Headlock,” “Glory” and the title track) are given a dash of sonic weirdness that shows how Jordan’s voice can work in a variety of settings.
Jordan recently said the making of Valentine was “the greatest challenge of my life thus far” and the proper way to listen to it was to do so in a “cave lit only by an old oil lamp.” Though she wears a pastel suit on the album’s cover, Jordan’s listening method and the music itself make Valentine sound like it’s soundtracking a lonely sailor drifting through the murkiest ocean as self-punishment for the worst parts of her life. A big part of that is a breakup, with “Automate” soundtracking Jordan trying to drown out a lost love with booze and promiscuity (“Tried life without you/But you in that green sweater/I could die if I had the guts/Puked it up, drank too much). “Headlock” is an even darker look at post-breakup misery (“Thought I’d see her when I died/Filled the bath up with warm water/Nothing on the othеr side”) followed by “Light Blue” and her remembering she knew what she was getting into (“First time I met you, I knew then/Afterwards there’d be/No in-between/We can sail the ocean blue/Or just lie down”). Snail Mail kicks the album off with the rage of its title track (“So why’d you wanna erase me, darling valentine?”) and ends on the acceptance of misery in “Mia” (“Lost love, so strange/And heaven’s not real, babe”).
Valentine is a near-perfect evolution for Snail Mail. Though not completely daring in terms of its lyrics or new sounds, it shows the band is willing to go beyond its indie rock comfort zone to paint a wider picture with their music. Like other eye-opening sophomore efforts (Lorde’s Melodrama or Clairo’s Sling), it’s interesting to see a young artist clearly on the path to realizing their full musical potential and Jordan is inching closer to her own masterpiece. Time will tell what else life has to offer her and how she’ll write about, but at least she and her band have the chops to make something unique.