(Lorna Vista Recordings, released Fri 28 April 2017)
Sylvan Esso’s 2014 self-titled debut was an alt-pop record determined to prioritise playfulness above radio play time, but somehow managed to achieve both. With their second effort, the aptly-titled What Now, the duo pull in both directions yet again, inhabiting the genre they seem to despise more than ever. Shiny, bouncy pop riffs with rounded edges conceal acerbic commentaries on the industry, resulting in a sparkly and pleasingly sardonic – but sometimes overly sugary – finished product.
Though Sylvan Esso wasn’t without a handful of inoffensive bubblegum pop songs (Hey Mami and HSKT especially spring to mind), it was here they concentrated most of their irresistibly juvenile charm (the latter in particular is an offbeat homage to the childhood chant of “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes”). Those same saccharine choruses and riffs are present here as well, but instead of being endearingly silly, Amelia Meath’s warbling has taken on a more barbed approach.
Radio calls out those popstars who seek to please the masses with unimaginative fodder for mainstream consumption, as well as the boffins/buffoons behind the scenes who insist on populating the airwaves with the self-same fodder. At one point, Meath lays down the line “Don’t you look good sucking American dick” while the chorus is a reference to the 3:30 minutes which such songs use as their inalienable blueprint (which, ironically, Radio also follows). While the jibes might hit their mark and the song was a success with the very people it parodies, the rhythms themselves are just too reminiscent of the genre it scorns to be thoroughly enjoyable.
Elsewhere, Kick Jump Twist and Just Dancing fit into the same bubbly pop category, watering down the quality of the record to some extent. Having said that, there are still plenty of excellent songs reminiscent of the first album to enjoy. The Glow is an upbeat introduction to the album which snags the listener without reverting too much to pop template, while Die Young is the kind of song that gets stuck in your head without you wanting to tear it out. Later on, Song and Signal are a double act which would also have been at home on the stand-out debut album, while closing tracks Slack Jaw and Rewind finish things off with appropriate élan and ship-steadying.
As a stand-alone album, What Now is an enjoyable alternative to the trash regularly heard in the charts, but which makes the mistake of straying a little too close to its intended quarry on occasion. In comparison to the previous album, it’s a rung or two down the ladder, but remains a decent follow-up which adds a handful of excellent songs to their canon.