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Sylvan Esso’s New Album of Electro-pop Challenges All Expectations

The electronic vertigo revs up immediately and rarely lets up on “No Rules Sandy,” the fourth studio album by Sylvan Esso. “How can I be moved when everything is moving,” Amelia Meath calmly muses in the opening track, “Moving,” over a hissing, scurrying beat, octave-swooping blips and stereo-panning whooshes that keep things spinning. It’s a whirlwind start to an album that celebrates renewed, unconstrained motion: lighthearted on the surface, purposeful at its core.

Sylvan Esso — the duo of Meath and her husband, Nick Sanborn — has created its own niche of electro-pop: transparent yet intricate, airy but serious, fond of pop structures yet eager to bend them. The duo skillfully deploys the hardware and software of electronic dance music, even as it eludes genres and warps standard patterns. The technology makes repetition all too easy, but Sylvan Esso has better ideas.

“No Rules Sandy” is a pendulum-swing sequel to “Free Love,” the subdued, wistful album that arrived in September 2020, when pandemic stasis and isolation were sinking in. “Free Love” contemplated, from a distance, the shared pleasures that were once taken for granted, with songs that longed to be, as one put it, “Shaking out the numb.”

In Sylvan Esso’s new songs, pleasure is back within reach. “Sunburn” celebrates overindulgence — too much sun, too many sweets — with a track punctuated by the happy sample of a bicycle bell. “Didn’t Care” revels in an unexpected romance with a euphoric blend of Afro-pop guitars, Balkan choral harmonies and bubbly synthesizers.

Sylan Esso hasn’t stayed isolated during the pandemic. Back in March 2021, it gathered fellow musicians around its North Carolina home base and completely reworked the electronic tracks from “Free Love” for a hand-played, full-band livestream set, titled “With Love” — a reminder of concert camaraderie. In September, the duo returned to touring. Still, “No Rules Sandy” sounds like Sylvan Esso had ample time to fool around in the studio.

There’s a spirit of try-anything, knob-twirling whimsy throughout the new album, a determination that any parameter can change at any time. The album’s watchwords are the refrain of “Your Reality,” a track that meshes syncopated, ambiguous synthesizer chords and a sighing string quartet: “Surreal but free — it’s your reality.”

Typical electronic pop and dance music offer reassurance through predictability: an obvious and reliable beat on the bottom, crisp verse-chorus-verse delineations for songs, or measured four-bar buildups leading to anticipated payoffs in dance tracks. Sylvan Esso challenges all those expectations. Throughout “No Rules Sandy,” beats appear, fracture and suddenly vanish and return; vocals are intimate and naturalistic one moment, glitchy or multitracked or pitch-shifted the next.

In “Echo Party,” Meath sings about “a lot of people dancing downtown,” with hi-hats and piano chords that hint at disco and house music. But the track craftily refuses to settle into a club groove. The sliding bass line slows down to trip things up (or out); later, the beat drops away completely, leaving Meath on a looped a cappella syllable: “by, by, by.”

The tweaks keep coming. “Look at Me” takes on the attention economy — “All I want is to be seen,” Meath sings — with production suggesting a constantly pinging internet; the rhythm is defined almost entirely from above by pecking, tapping, booping, clicking offbeats. “Cloud Walker” flickers in and out of a sense of 4/4 and 3/4, subdivided by the fibrillating cymbals of breakbeats, while Meath’s voice is overdubbed into chords as she sings about fear and acceptance: “learning disaster/relax in style.”

As that line suggests, “No Rules Sandy” is upbeat but not oblivious. “Everybody’s hearing along with me/the alarm the alarm the alarm,” Meath sings in “Alarm,” near the end of the album. For all the fun Sylvan Esso was clearly having in the studio, the music also reflects just how unstable the 2020s feel. All the whizzing, zinging, twinkling, morphing sounds promise there are ways to cope with what’s coming at us.

The album’s final track switches up once more. “Coming Back to You” is a simple, folky ballad, strummed on acoustic guitar (though Sylvan Esso can’t resist adding some filtered vocal harmonies). It promises a homecoming, a connection, a refuge: “I am the root, I am the leaf/I am the big tree you grew beneath,” Meath sings. After all the motion, the song offers a place to rest.

Sylvan Esso
“No Rules Sandy”
(Loma Vista)

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