In a recent Pitchfork interview, Lindsey Jordan—the 22-year-old singer-songwriter behind Snail Mail—noted that one of her influences is George Saunders. Saunders’ short fiction deals in the facetious and macabre, such as a 400-pound raccoon exterminator who accidentally kills his boss and primary tormentor. This Saundersian dark/funny juxtaposition is all over Snail Mail’s sophomore album Valentine. In the title track’s music video, Jordan shoves her mouth full of chocolate cake before murdering her lover’s husband in a bloody Shakespearean tragedy set to punch-the-air indie pop.
While on “Headlock”, she sings about filling a bath with warm water because, as she mumbles, “Thought I’d see her when I died.” Jordan browses hugely personal topics on Valentine—her month-long stay in a rehabilitation facility, unhealthy relationships, depression, reliance on love—but does so with a self-aware wink. She isn’t taking this too seriously, but at the same time, she is taking it really, really seriously.
At the start of the pandemic, Jordan decamped from her New York apartment to her parents’ house in Maryland’s leafy suburbs. It was here that she started working on Valentine in earnest. It’s a record that brims with the lessons learned in the intervening years since 2018’s Lush, every note and syllable conscious and considered but not second-guessed. Jordan revealed her biggest misstep of 2019: “I think there’s something to be said for having some of yourself to go home to so that you don’t give yourself away.” She’s more sure of herself this time around. And what better environment in which to delve into the painful, vulnerable space of writing about yourself than the comfort of home, the place you were before you gave yourself away?
That sentiment pervades the music. Jordan’s guitar is clean, clear, and powerful, easily filling the space but rarely dominating it. At times, she hides behind it—not in a cowardly sense; it’s more like medication or a partner. “But don’t act like you never met me,” she cries on “Ben Franklin”, almost in tears, before crawling under the warm blanket of guitar that follows. The song is moody and dancey—the drums shuffle, the bass is rubbery. It’s one of the many times Valentine incorporates dance elements (see: “Madonna”). But with this bridge section, the mood swings. The music video follows suit. Jordan traipses around the living room of a twee house, sprawled out on furniture, aimless, frustrated. But when her guitar takes center stage, she heads outside, plays with a puppy, eats an ice cream cone. “Ben Franklin” flirts with the Saunders dichotomy and is perhaps the best song Jordan has ever managed.
Despite reaching super-hype status, Jordan maintains her songwriting ingenuity. Musically, “Headlock” bears the closest resemblance to previous releases. To wistful emo-pop, she spirals into despair while pressing her nose to the glass to observe an ex-love—”Can’t go out / I’m tethered to / Another world where we’re together / Are you lost in it too?”. Her guitar swoons and oozes with queasiness as though she’s unstable on her feet. Conversely, “Forever (Sailing)” is ready to score a prom scene in an ’80s movie, its laid-back dance beat and glossy synths punctuating her wry lovesick confessions.
Lush captured dorm-room perks and despairs of being a wallflower set to jangly guitars. Valentine elevates everything, from the musical arrangements to the lyrics. It’s Jordan’s voice that has developed most, though. “So why’d you wanna erase me, darling valentine?” she pleads on the title track. It’s the biggest chorus on the album—arguably the biggest chorus of the year—and that line bursts with ache, her voice fuller than ever. On “Automate”, she attempts to assuage her heartache with a spontaneous sexual encounter. “It’s 13 days after, but it still feels like cheating / One more drink ’til I can lay beside you,” she moans, frozen between letting go of the past and clutching to its debris.
The album finds a point of clarity with the final track, “Mia”. It’s Jordan’s most affecting song to date. Against bittersweet guitar plucks, gorgeous orchestral strings ebb and flow like a Pixar film score—their poignance should not be underestimated (see: “Married Life” from UP). It would be easy to quote the lyrics in full, but it boils down to this: “Mia, don’t cry. I’ll love you forever / But I gotta grow up now / Know I can’t keep holding onto you anymore.”
That’s what Jordan has been working towards. She stops clawing her eyes out and spilling questions into a void, sounding almost content, certainly accepting. Valentine delivers on the hype and proves—in case there was any doubt remaining—that Lush wasn’t a whip-smart fluke. Lindsey Jordan is a remarkable songwriter with a gift for converting misery into beauty, a luminary for the guitar-led alternative/indie movement. Jordan may be feeling small, but Snail Mail is about to get a lot bigger.