In 2014, Sylvan Esso — a North Carolina-based electronic-pop duo that had only been together for a few months — quietly released its self-titled debut on the small indie Partisan Records. The album had been made primarily in a bedroom and sounds like it, but its lo-fi charm does not bely the substantial talent and pop instincts of the duo, which consists of multi-instrumentalist Nick Sanborn, a trained jazz musician, and completely untrained vocalist Amelia Meath. Two of its songs, “Hey Mami” and especially “Coffee,” became minor left-field hits on alternative radio and as the duo toured relentlessly in support of the album, the bedroom-spawned songs growing bigger, louder and brawnier to suit the larger audiences and stages upon which they were performed. On those dates, they premiered a hard-hitting new song known as “Dance,” with playful and delicate verses that burst into a throbbing chorus, which evoked an almost post-coital “What was that?!” from the crowds; that the duo managed to keep it off of the internet only increased the buzz around the track. Sylvan Esso developed a solid following and a small bidding battle ensued that ultimately saw the group — which is handled by Middle West Management (Bon Iver, Minus the Bear) — inking with Universal-distributed indie Loma Vista.
Meath and Sanborn have brought every bit of that growth to “What Now,” a sophomore effort that sees them progressing as far in one album as most groups do in two or three. The hooks are bigger and more refined; the sound is direct and powerful enough to communicate from both festival stages and small computer speakers; the stylistic variety ranges from dance-pop to an almost acoustic lilt to a nearly a capella song. Sanborn’s musical training is evident not so much in virtuosity as the layered and tastefully restrained arrangements, which advance and recede deftly; the sound isn’t sparse but nothing’s there that doesn’t need to be, which leaves plenty of room for the hooks to sink in.
While there’s not a weak track on the album, it has twin peaks. First is a radio song about radio songs called (naturally) “Radio” — released as a single last fall — with a cascading electronic hook, a driving stop-start beat and lyrics that unpack the duo’s pop obsessions: the chorus even references the ideal length for a radio song (3:30) and the group performed it on Fallon a few months back with a giant stopclock behind them counting down from 3:30, with Sanborn striking the last note the instant it hit zero. It’s an impressively meta effort that could have been ridiculous but succeeds brilliantly.
The other is the far less driving “Slackjaw,” a solo, almost completely unaccompanied lament on insecurity from Meath that finds her electronically treated voice climbing around a melody so simple and striking it could be a melancholy lullaby.
There are many other highlights on the album — the near-guitar-pop of “Song” (yes, just “Song”), the slow groove of the current single “Die Young,” and the return of “Kick Jump Twist,” the song formerly known as “Dance.” But the versatility and growth on “What Now” suggests the only thing more exciting than what Sylvan Esso have done here is what they’ll do next.