For Sylvan Esso, the electropop duo comprised of singer-songwriter Amelia Meath and instrumentalist-engineer Nick Sanborn, an artistic evolution has been inevitable. When the group pierced the indie pop scene with their streaming hit “Coffee” and subsequent record Sylvan Esso in 2014, the potpourri of Meath’s folksy drawl with Sanborn’s beep-boop electronica proved a surprising, welcome blend that neatly situated them alongside indie poppers Purity Ring and Tennis while predating the likes of Maggie Rogers.
Now, after wrapping up their self-proclaimed trilogy of albums with 2020’s Free Love, Sylvan Esso have evolved their aesthetic to its most exciting, if not always consistently dynamic, direction since their debut, delivering a record that pays tribute to their pop roots as much as it subverts and, consequently, surpasses them. Speedily recorded during a three-week winter retreat, No Rule Sandy’s ten tracks—interrupted by brief voicemails from loved ones, recording studio shenanigans, and other esoteric vignettes—carry a wryly unencumbered attitude toward pleasure and bodily movement, reinforced with enough idiosyncrasies that affirm the duo still have plenty of tricks up their sweat-coated sleeves.
In the opener “Moving”, a crackling barnstormer of a track, a deadpan Meath muses over a computerized vocal effect, “how can I be moved/when everything is moving?” It’s a sneakily grim dance track and a game way to kick a record about self-aware euphoria off; when words can’t properly describe the feelings we have about the world crumbling at a breakneck pace, why don’t we just boogie it out? It’s the first of many songs that remind us Sylvan Esso haven’t exactly thrown the rules of pop structure and electronica out the window as much as they have stepped out of the room, able to finally see the regulations from the street below for the malleable guidelines they are.
Throughout No Rules Sandy, Meath’s lyricism remains observed and witty, with double entendres and eccentric phrasing abound. With origins rooted in folk (she sings with the trio Mountain Man), Meath brings a careful measure of humor and heart to the proceedings, though No Rules Sandy disavows both folk’s and the duo’s own established tendencies for narrative that color some of Sylvan Esso’s most memorable previous tunes.
In fact, it also disavows much of electropop’s iconography, preferring to disrupt the well-trodden paths of radio-friendly bangers. On “Echo Party”, a riotous track of intertwining melodies that sounds as if all the games at a 1980s video arcade came to life and banged the night away, the chorus swells and dips at precipitous moments, skirting the apropos bass drop and succeeding in delivering something far weirder and yet more consistent. The jubilation promised by Meath’s lyrics (“Yeah you can’t play it down / But you want it to feel right now”) derives a sense of the uncanny, a world in which the party is so good you can’t stop it even if you tried.
In these moments of decided menace and melancholy, No Rules Sandy stands apart from Sylvan Esso’s contemporaries. With some contributions from friends, including a string arrangement by Gabriel Kahane underscoring the gorgeous “Your Reality” and saxophone from Sam Gendel on a couple of tracks, the duo follow suit on the heights of their 2019 WITH tour by expanding the scope of their sound while maintaining their incendiary bite. The synth brass and carefree beat of “Didn’t Care” may signal the type of schmaltzy ode to love at first sight that would fit alongside a Calvin Harris collaboration, but Meath’s knowingly flippant tone and deployment of “but nothing happened” in regards to her initial feelings about her lover ironically spawn a much more romantic tale.
Still, not all of No Rules Sandy maintains the rebellious, engrossing pace its creators establish from the get-go. By the record’s latter half, the disconnected tone of Meath’s vocals—at once brassy and percussive—loses some of its vibrancy on songs “Cloud Walker” and “Alarm”, and the funk and 1990s electronica-inspired beats seem out of sync as a result. Meath and Sanborn describe the record-making process as one in which each worked to impress and surprise the other. In these moments, the collaboration-by-contention strategy doesn’t fully prevail in creating the magic of which Sylvan Esso are capable.
Where No Rules Sandy regains its footing, however, is in its closing moments. On the at-times heartbreakingly tender “Coming Back to You”, Sanborn’s signature electronic drum and bass contributions are noticeably absent, allowing an acoustic guitar and Meath’s whispery twang to take center stage as she croons, “I am the root / I am the leaf / I am the big tree / You grew beneath.” While it’s hardly the first low-tempo ballad of their career, the carefully arrayed restraint behind its construction leaves enough space for listeners to lose themselves in its delicacy, begetting perhaps the most intimate track of the duo’s oeuvre.
As it slips into its outro, Meath’s close-lipped coos are layered and warped with pitch shifters, creasing against and besides the gentle acoustic strumming to coalesce into one being, the melding of human and machine. It’s less a retreat into a gimmicky device Sylvan Esso frequents than what No Rules Sandy signifies for the duo as a whole: an evolution into something more significant.