There was no way to foresee a band like Sylvan Esso before they actually appeared. Coming from North Carolina, a state not known as a hotbed for electronic pop music, and comprised of former members of a cappella folk act Mountain Man (singer Amelia Meath) and the psychedelically leaning Megafaun (producer Nick Sanborn), on paper the band sounds like something made up for an Onion article. But the duo’s 2014 debut was a surprise breakthrough that landed them heavy radio play, a well-attended national tour, and a spot in the Top 40 of the Billboard Album Charts, all of which makes for a very different scenario for the release of their second record, the appropriately titled What Now (Loma Vista Recordings).
The oft-referenced sophomore slump is a thing for a reason, but Sylvan Esso seems to be facing the issue head on. Instead of trying to rebel from their previous success or strike a trendy pose to ensure more radio play, they have stayed the course. To be fair, radio has started sounding more like the band in recent years, so What Now sounds current without really having to try. What separates Sylvan Esso from their contemporaries is a sense of humor as they poke fun at the conventions of the world they find themselves in. “Radio” makes mention of the perfect length for a radio pop song (which just so happens to be the length of this radio-friendly pop song) while also deconstructing the expectations put on female pop stars.
What Now balances dance jams with moodier tracks, like the dark love song, “Die Young,” and the nostalgic number, “The Glow.” There are also dirty, fuzzed-out diversions that seem more like four-track demos than polished pop songs. But they fit perfectly in this context, with one such song, “Sound,” opening the record and setting an unhurried pace. The album ends in a similar, but sonically cleaner way with “Slack Jaw,” which features a minimalist backing track and an almost jazzy vocal, and “Rewind,” which sounds like a glitchy chop-up of someone playing a water cooler jug while a synth quietly glides underneath.
Sylvan Esso may never have the element of surprise again, but the confident and unbothered performances on What Now show that they aren’t just a bright flash in the pan.