Sylvan Esso : Free Love

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“Bedroom pop” is the sort of hackneyed descriptor that music journalists and publicists quickly drove into oblivion through overuse. Which is unfortunate, because unlike other genre-invention phrases from this millennium—such as chillwave and vaporwave—this one actually conjures up a specific mental image. Though it rarely represented reality (much less what I wanted from either pop music or music made in one’s bedroom), it’s hard not to be charmed by the overall naiveté of the idea.

Surprisingly, in the year of COVID, the phrase has yet to make its way back into common parlance, even as many of 2020’s high-profile albums have been released with “made in home studios” origin stories. People are literally making bedroom music, and the perfect name just sits there.

Free Love, the new album by Sylvan Esso, oozes the sensibilities of bedroom pop from every pore. Much like the duo’s first two full-lengths, the name of the game is the blend of Amelia Meath’s expressive alto and Nick Sanborn’s minimalist processors. The album provides a high-quality slab of new-school electro-pop replete with quirky warmth and background noise caught on open mics.

To be sure, a disciplined act like Sylvan Esso knows exactly what they’re doing leaving those stray sounds in the mix. Plenty of tools exist to remove such “errors” from the master mix, so the appearance of random clatters, shuffles, and vocal snippets are absolutely intentional. To my ears, they enhance the ambiance of the album by peeling back the curtain a bit on the process of making electronic music in 2020. 

A lot of people stayed home for large chunks of this year because of a global pandemic, but as an electronic musician, there’s already the freedom to do that—even if working regularly with others sometimes requires only sending over a data file to be edited, added to, and otherwise improved upon by collaborators. What Sylvan Esso have done is let some of the day-to-day realities of being a married couple subtly make its way into the songs. It’s their way of saying that real people made this music, and the technology they use doesn’t make it any less “authentic.”

The album feels like a sly song cycle or subtle concept album, yet never veering into over-the-top prog high-mindedness. The listener simply wakes with “What If,” marches steadily up to the mountain top that is “Numb,” and then strides thoughtfully down the hill where they eventually settle down to sleep accompanied by “Make It Easy.” There is very little fat and a lot of fun to be had with these songs, and the music never succumbs to cheap impulses. Meath and Sanborn instead crafted knife-edge pop tunes with heart, especially standouts like “Ring,” “Ferris Wheel,” and “Runaway.”

Free Love is, in fact, perfect bedroom pop for a pandemic: there’s plenty of opportunity to dance around the room so the endorphins kick in, but it encourages the listener to sit down with some good headphones to absorb the tiny nuances that go into making impeccable electronic music.

Label: Loma Vista

Year: 2020

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