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On 'No Rules Sandy,' Sylvan Esso finds freedom outside the formula

The songs on Sylvan Esso's new album, <em>No Rules Sandy</em>, don't sound belabored; instead, they hold a weightlessness emphasized by a thematic interest in the present.
Brian Karlsson
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Courtesy of the artist
The songs on Sylvan Esso's new album, No Rules Sandy, don't sound belabored; instead, they hold a weightlessness emphasized by a thematic interest in the present.

Sylvan Esso's fourth album ends in a manner almost antithetical to the duo's original musical impulses, putting the band's early-days and present versions on opposite shores. As they've recounted, it all started when folk singer Amelia Meath — then best known as a member of the choral-forward group Mountain Man — conscripted electronic music producer Nick Sanborn to remix her song, "Play It Right." Sanborn, performing under the alias Made of Oak, transformed a tightly harmonized a cappella tune into a brash, alien thing, bottom heavy and propulsive. A band was born off the heady feeling of discovering something new in each other, with that remix slotting in as the penultimate track of its 2014 self-titled debut.

Since then, Sylvan Esso has been synonymous with a sort of adventurous, beat-focused pop. In that context, album closer "Coming Back to You" is singular: In the 40-plus songs of the duo's career so far, it's the first Meath wrote on an acoustic guitar, and the first to leave its sound so prominent and unvarnished.

That last song may be a sonic outlier in the Sylvan Esso catalog, but a degree of experimentation is actually what it shares with the rest of No Rules Sandy; as its title states, the new album is marked not by a reversal of the duo's songwriting formula so much as a forgoing of one altogether. The result is an album that sounds unselfconscious, a truer blend of both Meath and Sanborn's skill sets. With Sylvan Esso's new disinterest in the signature window-shaking bass of earlier hits "Hey Mami" and "Die Young," Sandy songs like "Your Reality" and "Didn't Care" hold a weightlessness emphasized by a thematic interest in the present.

The duo traditionally writes and records over a period of months at home in Durham, N.C., where the band even built its own studio, Betty's, in nearby Chapel Hill. No Rules Sandy went a little differently. At the beginning of 2022, the band decamped to Los Angeles with no set intention to record an album. But Meath says that momentum built as she and Sanborn just kept enjoying the byproduct of writing sessions.

"Even if we weren't feeling good, we would just sit down and try to make something," she says in a press release about the album. "Pretty much every day that we did that, we got a song that we liked."

Previous songs were often conceived individually — Meath sending Sanborn an a cappella voice memo for him to produce, Sanborn creating an arrangement for her to write over. But here, they produced songs in tandem, and the resulting work is more relaxed, observational and rambling, without flashy choruses or overpowering production. These songs don't sound belabored, indicating an ease of songcraft between two longtime partners. (That partnership extends beyond music, too; the two quietly married in the years between their first two records.)

That collaborative process lends No Rules Sandy a feeling of immediacy, both in production and lyrics. Opening song "Moving" plops us in the middle of a standard four-bar musical phrase as Meath, buffeted by glitchy, frenetic synth lines, tries to hold fast in an ever-churning world. The repeated mantra "How can I be moved / When everything is moving" is an articulation of a loss of feeling in a time when "everything happens so much," but it's just as much an argument in favor of curating stillness.

The repetition that categorizes "Moving" is a touchstone on an album of music for the present tense. Time is not of the essence on No Rules Sandy; it is duly considered. Meath sings "look at me" 21 times on the eponymous song marked by ponderous Nintendo 64-inspired synths, the sound of a cassette tape rewinding at its start and a chorus punctuated by the sound of ticking clock hands. On "Cloud Walker," she implores the listener to "hold that breath / feel the sun," a grounding practice to slow time. Of course, by the next song, "Sunburn," she's felt it for too long, but in Sylvan Esso's world, stinging, blistered, pink, swollen skin is not an annoyance, but a reminder of a life well-lived, of inhabiting a body that reacts to external forces.

"My favorite way to ruin me," Meath divulges, is "to eat the sweet right when I see it." And why shouldn't she? Sylvan Esso is adept at conjuring childlike sweeps of feeling – whether it's the first time you fell in love with a song ("The Glow") or skipping to one down the sidewalk because music makes you feel alive ("Rooftop Dancing") – often through Sanborn's whimsical synth lines or Meath's nursery-rhyme vocals.

Children don't think too much about the future or the past. Do it now, one might garner from spending an afternoon in their shoes. Do it anyway, if you add in the wisdom of adult experience. With that in mind, when Meath cues saxophonist Sam Gendel with a quick "OK!" on the pulsing "How Did You Know," it's easy to mishear it as a clipped "f*** it!" instead. There's freedom in that sentiment — not the "giving up because it isn't as good as you wanted" kind, but the quotidian courage it takes to try something that might land you flat on your face. "F*** it!" asks how much more you could accomplish if you weren't afraid of the fall; Sylvan Esso — and No Rules Sandy — is built on that courage. Meath has said so herself, in her own way, on a podcast the band made around its last album: "Sometimes I think about the nature of our collaboration like trapeze artists," she says, "who are actually throwing each other in the air and catching each other all the time."

But if past songs were tokens of love passed between collaborators, there's reciprocity on No Rules Sandy in both its creation and concept, where seeing another person and being seen in return is the highest state of intimacy. If our narrator begins the album with the quiet demand of "look at me," she ends it with returned effort on "Coming Back to You." "I don't wanna cross the ocean / I don't wanna cross the sea" becomes "I'm on the ocean / I'm out to sea," lines transversed for love. And what starts as an acoustic ballad has, by the second chorus, transformed as well: Sanborn filters Meath's voice through a vocoder, subverting the idea that acoustic songs or unprocessed vocals are the most genuine purveyors of emotion or signifiers of vulnerability. For Sylvan Esso, electronics are the bedrock of trust, going all the way back to that "Play It Right" remix.

That sense of cooperation empowers them across a range of projects. Both artists have continued to grow their corral of collaborators – Mountain Man is still active; Sanborn has found work as a producer for artists like Flock of Dimes' Jenn Wasner; both have recently debuted new projects (The A's for Meath, and GRRL x Made of Oak for Sanborn) – and together, they have demonstrated a commitment to building community in Durham with Betty's, their own record label and big shows like the three-day, locally-billed Historic Durham Athletic Park performance.

Out of all their collaborations, it's maybe too romantic to say that Sylvan Esso is the most essential — but it's uniquely thrilling to witness the way Meath and Sanborn see each other in every song. You don't have to know yourself to know another, but there's alchemy and an open doorway if you do, and No Rules Sandy hints at the payoff of walking through it together. There's something captivating about watching two people perform a trust fall again and again and again; listening to their music is like closing your eyes and tipping backwards yourself.

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Cyrena Touros