Album of the Week: Sylvan Esso, 'Free Love'

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Sylvan Esso, 'Free Love'
Sylvan Esso, 'Free Love' (Loma Vista Recordings)
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There is a word that's been rattling in the back of my brain this year: phantasmagoric. It's basically an illusion that has the appearance of truth but isn't the truth. An interpretation that is created in your own mind that may not exist. The phantasmagoric appear in everyday of our lives, in our politics, in our tweets. It's how we interact with media of all forms from allowing the suspension of disbelief for a town overrun with monster on Netflix or feeling like a beloved musician wrote a song that speaks just to us. Music is its own deception, a 3-minute escape for whatever ails you. Sylvan Esso seems to be contemplating that imaginary space as well. Ideas about authenticity, celebrity, love, music, and self shift and filter over the course of their new album, Free Love.

The album kicks off with a fuzzy tone like a transistor radio picking up a song between stations. The first song, "What If" asks us for that suspension of disbelief (or as singer Amelia Meath said in a recent interview with The Current, "the idea of, like, totally reinventing society") - for us to consider that the end was the beginning or that darkness was light (there's also some references to climate change - which feels especially timely). The song wraps telling us that there are multiple truths that live in our mouth and the "she's coming out." The following nine songs dive into a version of the truth of things as seen by Sylvan Esso. Songs about the world of pop music ("Train" with a sick allusion to the Quad City DJs if I'm hearing it right), the illusions of celebrity ("Free"), admiration and self ("Frequency"), and chasing that high of lust ("Ferris Wheel"), love ("Ring"), and childhood innocence ("Rooftop Dancing").

You can't discuss Sylvan Esso without considering the push and pull of the duo, Nick Sanborn and Meath. This is a musical conversation that reflects and waits and listens. I recently chatted with the band and asked about their connection and Sanborn said that they felt that connection, "from the first time we were on stage together...that kind of conversational connection was the thing that made us want to do this as much as we've now done it in the last eight years." And the conversation is even more lively than on their previous two albums. Sanborn's expressive play tweeks and turns and adjusts to every moment. And just as the pandemic allowing us to have unfettered access to our favorite artists thru home performances and more time on social media, this album brings in that humanity of behind the scene clips and bits of conversation.

Sanborn shared in that same interview that the album could also be about, "being increasingly anxious about the world around you and looking inward to remember when it was really easy to love other people." Maybe that's too simple and too sweet: a world where it's easy to love each other. But that's not a bad phantasmagoric world.

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