Sylvan Esso’s ‘Free Love’ Infuses Dance with Folk Elements
Arts, Music, Review

Sylvan Esso’s ‘Free Love’ Infuses Dance with Folk Elements

★★★★★

Sylvan Esso makes cool music for interesting people to dance to—that much is true. The North Carolina folktronica duo also, however, makes music that carries just as much lyrical weight as it does festival-friendly bass lines. In the age of COVID-19 and social distancing, Free Love is a welcome fusion of romantic diction and the now-foggy memories of unmasked nights out.

Formed in 2013, Sylvan Esso consists of vocalist Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn. Meath and Sanborn both hail from the world of folk (bands Mountain Man and Megafaun, respectively) but struck electronic gold when they combined to form Sylvan Esso, named after a character in an old iOS game called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. That sort of offbeat, niche dorkiness has translated directly into the duo’s unique sound, giving them a softness that many other electronic acts lose in overproduction. 

Free Love captures that softness perfectly. Tracks such as “Free” and “Rooftop Dancing” twirl off Meath’s tongue with sugary delicacy, giving listeners the impression that they’re being let in on a dazzling secret. Her voice never reaches its height, instead remaining cool, calm, and collected for the entire duration of the 29-minute album. That’s part of the allure of Sylvan Esso: Its music is inherently cool. Whether it be a more acoustic track like “Funeral Singers” or an entirely electronic tune like “Hey Mami,” Sylvan Esso continues to create music that could easily be found on the soundtracks of various young adult dramas.

As she whispers, “Oh, people always ask me / What it’s like to love everybody,” Meath leads a two-way conversation about intimacy, something the duo knows a thing or two about. Meath and Sanborn wed in 2016, and you can clearly hear the echoes of married life bounce off the walls of the album. “Ring” is a literal reference to the commitment of marriage; “Frequency” is an ode to the concept of “the one,” something that the two obviously subscribe to. The duo truly lets listeners feel as though they are personally witnessing the love between the two of them, particularly at the beginning of “Free,” which includes a voice memo snippet of Meath telling Sanborn “I love you.” As corny as it sounds, Free Love (despite its counterintuitive name) is an album rife with the intricacies of intimacy, a roadmap to relationships that are not only meaningful, but make your heart beat in time with “Ferris Wheel.” 

“Ferris Wheel” is easily the album’s crown jewel. Bursting with bass and synth galore, the three-minute track sounds as if it were created in a test tube specifically for the purpose of dancing in a crowded nightclub. This is the other side of Sylvan Esso: the side that takes traditional electronic music and makes it even easier to move to, thanks to Sanborn’s background in electro-folk and precision in the studio. Other tracks such as “Train” and “Numb” attempt to elicit the same bodily reaction in listeners, but “Ferris Wheel” is a one-of-a-kind song that’s simply impossible to recreate. It’s a genuine shame that there won’t be any festivals or clubs to play it at any time soon, but, once there are, “Ferris Wheel” will fall into its rightful place as a Saturday night staple. 

Free Love is a triumph for Sylvan Esso. Meath shines lyrically, utilizing ambiguity to create an uncertain air about each song. It’s almost as if she has written the lyrics with the mission of letting the audience decide what they mean, but at the last moment, the story of each song becomes very clear. Meath, like Sanborn with his drum machines and synthesizers, uses her writing capabilities to create a distinct sound for the duo while still remaining true to their folk origins. Free Love, once dancing in large groups is legal again, will easily become an electronic classic.

Featured image courtesy of Loma Vista Recordings

September 27, 2020
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