Snail Mail begin one of the most eagerly anticipated debut albums of the year uncharacteristically tentatively. On Intro, the sighing vocals bleed with reverb over a sparse guitar, and the whole thing fizzles out after barely a minute. It’s not what we’ve come to expect.
Snail Mail, the solo project of 18 year old Baltimore native Lyndsey Jordan, has been steadily accruing buzz in the indie rock world since 2016 off the back of a handful of scorching singles. Two of these (Pristine and Heat Wave) appear on ‘Lush’. The absence of Thinning however – her most streamed song to date – means the album avoids being merely a vehicle for indie anthems. Instead, ‘Lush’ displays a greater depth of song writing than we’ve heard so far, particularly on the back end.
Back to that unexpected opening though, and it’s one of those singles that blasts the album into life after the muted start. Pristine is the one that’s going to be on all the end of year lists, and quite rightly. Jordan’s original modus operandi is in full glorious flight here: thorny guitars weave around lyrics that move between small time mundanity and big time heartbreak. “We can be anything – even apart” Jordan observes, idealistic and fatalistic in the same breath.
That tendency to occupy two positions at once is all over the album. At times, in part due to her appealing, slightly reedy delivery, she appears every bit her 18 years. At others, she sounds jaded, old before her time. Sometimes this happens in the same line. When she is ‘up late for 6 nights in a row‘ it’s hard to decide whether she’s describing teenage exuberance or something more like middle-aged exhaustion.
Jordan is a technically sharp lyricist, both in exploring her own lethargy and the micro dynamics of her relationships. Implicit in phrases like ‘coming clean’, ‘speaking terms’ ‘kitchen sink’ is a sense of domestic drama that she takes pleasure in interrogating. As a queer young woman, Jordan has expressed misgivings about being seen through that lens, uncomfortable with her music having an assigned role. For the most part though the youthful heartache she probes feels universal, regardless of its source. This is a personal album, not a political one.
Jordan lets another choppy guitar line lead the way on Speaking Terms. On the soaring Heat Wave – a close runner-up to Pristine – a Broken Social Scene-style solo throbs around the chorus, richer and fuller than the rest of the guitar work. Stick is the only survivor from her debut EP, re-purposed slightly clumsily here from a slow, rolling closer to the being the midpoint of Lush.
Let’s Find An Out signals the end of the bangers. Gorgeous and slinky, Jordan swaps fat riffs for delicate finger picking and sings to the ‘strawberry moon’, setting the sun on the first half of the album. The final four tracks by and large feel more interested in melody and mood than big guitar moments or lyrical observation. The woozy guitar and even woozier elongated syllables in the chorus of the excellent Full Control hint at the poppiest moments of My Bloody Valentine.
A couple of honest-to-God ballads ease the album to its conclusion. Deep Sea is pretty and understated and has Jordan imagining isolation as a deep sea dive, more interested in keeping control than cathartic release. Finally, she takes us full circle. That minute long snippet at the beginning of the album is repurposed on Anytime. Her sing-song voice is no longer swollen with effect. Instead, backed by clean acoustic guitar, she is clear as a bell. ‘In the end you could waste your whole life anyway, and I want better for you’ she sings, sage wisdom belied by the 18 year old voice.
‘Lush’ is elevated in its attention to detail: the bass drum half beat before the vocal on Pristine, the resolution of the unfinished opening track to close. Lyndsey Jordan writes confidently and assuredly, often about being neither confident nor assured. She sounds simultaneously precociously young and sometimes comically world weary. She skewers heartbreak and boredom like an archer.
‘Lush’ is not the pure endorphin rush of Snail Mail’s earlier songs. It has some of that, but overall it’s more thoughtful, more interested in balance than peaks, and it adds more strings to Jordan’s growing bow.