In America and the world over right now, there’s pent-up desire to celebrate something. But a heaviness looms over the whole human experience. From a pandemic to systemic racism to eroding or nonexistent human rights at home and abroad, there’s not much to rejoice.
It’s hard to dance.
Durham, North Carolina, act Sylvan Esso reaches deep to find the inspiration on its magical and much-needed third studio album, Free Love. Across 10 life-affirming cuts, Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn deliver a subdued dance LP that simultaneously dabbles in nostalgia and sits uneasily in the present world.
“Shaking out the numb,” Meath sings on mid-album standout “Numb,” the record’s lyrical anchor and, at four minutes and 25 seconds, its longest track. “Let me feel something.”
Acknowledging numbness as a prevailing condition in the world right now, it would be nearly impossible for the listener not to feel anything from Free Love, a record that bends, grooves, and struts in glorious ways that make one yearn for the pre-quarantine world.
Meath and Sanborn reach even farther back on the single “Ferris Wheel.” Here, they take us back to a constructed adolescence of fair rides, puppy love, and innocent posturing.
“When I’m slamming in my dancing shoes / Asphalt’s hot and my knees all bruised,” Meath declares over electro blips and a ridiculously captivating beat. “It’s the summer gotta lot to prove / Can’t wait to do it can you? (NO!)”
They follow similar themes up to the skyline on “Rooftop Dancing.” With a more atmospheric sound, complete with the sounds of children chanting blended into the mix, Sylvan Esso truly takes flight.
“Slo-mo throwing my body in the air / Making the jump from ledge to ledge,” Meath sings with ease. “Long hair flying / We’re out of breath / We’re rooftop dancing.”
But buoyancy and carefree abandon are never the full picture, in old times, in current times, or in any times. Via the stark, quasi-industrial “Make It Easy,” Meath calls back to a time when the “world was smaller, but you knew it then.”
And with grinding repetition, Sylvan Esso uses this closing track to describe and simulate the sensation of a skipping record.
“It’s playing now,” Meath sings once, then repeats 26 times, with distortion creating an arresting effect.
Free Love effortlessly blends wistfulness with a grounded reality check. Life, with its daily horrors and generation-spanning dysfunction, constantly repeats itself.
And yet, Sylvan Esso reminds us, we must keep dancing.