By Melanie Broussalian-
Think you’ve heard every iteration of the “pandemic album”? Think again. Electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso is back with No Rules Sandy, the follow-up to their 2020 album, Free Love. While this experimental record is 16 tracks, fear not: six of those songs are bite-size interludes under 30 seconds, providing momentary palette cleanses and glimpses into the recording process. The opening notes of the first track, “Moving,” are a little jarring to the unprepared listener with an immediate flurry of distorted synths and keyboards. Amelia Meath’s floating vocals effortlessly provide a little more grounding on “Look At Me,” but only for a moment. Sylvan Esso has spent their career evolving their sound and taking new risks album to album, and No Rules Sandy is, well, no exception. “Echo Party,” the second-longest track on the record, is the closest to what listeners imagine when they think of Sylvan Esso. Even then, both the vocals and instrumentals are delivered in a clipped, robotic tone and looping lines that provide a fresh spin on a formula they’ve perfected over the years.
Recorded over the course of merely three weeks, the thesis behind No Rules Sandy lies in the title itself. Meath and bandmate Nick Sanborn explained to NPR, “We feel like we learned the rules and figured out how to write pop songs in the way that we write them. So we threw all those things away and began again.” Whereas Free Love felt polished, strategic and deliberate, No Rules Sandy is improvisational in nature, fueled by a try-anything-and-see-what-happens approach. Case in point is “Didn’t Care,” a bubblegum club song turned on its head that somehow marries humorous lyrics with a delightfully melodic bass line and joyful harmonies. On the other hand, “Your Reality” employs the use of lush, but sparsely used, strings against a low-fi beat that supports Meath’s patented delicate vocal delivery.
“Sunburn” and “Alarm” lend themselves most easily to the dancefloor, but not without a subtly unsettling undercurrent that’s hard to name. The quietest and most profound moment on the record comes at the very end with the final track, “Coming Back to You,” a barebones song reminiscent just as much of Big Thief as of Sylvan Esso. Its genius lies in its simplicity, though, giving the listener the chance to digest the duality of Meath’s words: “I'm on a ribbon/Of concrete…I'm eighty-five/I'm sixteen/I am a mother/A baby.”Is No Rules Sandy a particularly easy or relaxing listen? Or is it the band’s best work? Maybe not. But in an age when fewer musicians are taking risks in favor of viral TikTok fame, it’s certainly refreshing to see a band pursue the music they want to make. And have the time of their lives while doing it.