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A ‘snail’s’ pace

Mike Maguire

This article was written one week before the release of Snail Mail’s sophomore album, “Valentine” on Nov. 5. That said, my opinions presented in this piece remain accurate after giving the entire album multiple in-depth listens.

2018 marked a triumphant year for Maryland indie rock trio Snail Mail. Led by frontwoman and chief songwriter Lindsey Jordan, their full-length debut album “Lush” was sighted as an instant classic upon its release, with many championing Jordan’s guitar virtuosity and vocal brilliance across “Lush’s” 10 tracks. 

Three years later, the initial praise given to “Lush” still remains accurate. From the anthemic singles “Pristine” and “Heat Wave” to the jangly and emotionally potent “Stick,” Jordan and company exhibit a natural ability to write indie rock music that is both emotionally tender while maintaining a sense of urgency. 

Beyond that, Jordan flexes her ability to write eloquent balladry on their single “Let’s Find An Out” along with  the album’s closer, “Anytime.” Both tracks display a sense of confidence and maturity well beyond Jordan’s years, granted she was 19 years old during the writing and release of “Lush.” Publications cited Jordan as a prodigy, naming her a beacon of hope for the next generation of independent music.

Unlike a fair share of indie rock music that gets widespread attention today, Snail Mail’s sound on “Lush” is informed by the live and guitar-driven sound pioneered by genre heavyweights such as Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine. For younger listeners, “Lush” served as an introduction to guitar-based indie rock, which has debatably taken a backseat to music that emphasizes drums and vocals as its main focal point. Jordan’s focus on standard rock instrumentation made her and Snail Mail stand out in a world polluted by synthesizers and beat machines, which is why their newest singles, “Valentine” and “Ben Franklin” come as a surprise to longtime listeners like myself.

Released on Nov. 5, Snail Mail’s recent album “Valentine” leaves much to the imagination for  the listeners who loved the guitar-focused sound of “Lush.” While the album’s first single, “Valentine” features an explosive and guitar-heavy chorus, it is noticeably simpler in both form and function compared to Snail Mail’s previous releases. Instead, Snail Mail trades the triumphant guitar work from their previous releases for drum- and synthesizer-focused verses, which lack the unique identity that made past releases such as “Lush” great. While there is no inherent problem with emphasizing synthesizers and drums in rock music, Snail Mail’s attempt to do so makes them sound more anonymous than anthemic.

Assuring listeners of the synthesizer’s newfound home in Snail Mail’s music, the album’s second single “Ben Franklin” has little resemblance to what listeners came to know and love about the group. Personally,  “Ben Franklin” sounds like certain songs that Snail Mail used to differentiate themselves from. The song’s skittering hi-hat pattern and the synthesizer melody that adorns Jordan’s vocal performance lack the personalized edge that Jordan’s guitar playing brought to their music. Simply put, “Ben Franklin” sounds like a completely different band when compared to the swirling and emotion-conjuring instrumentation of their back-catalog.

While it saddens me to feel so negatively about the first two singles from “Valentine,” I cannot help but feel that Snail Mail has potentially lost what made them an anomaly in the world of indie rock music. I look forward to hearing what the band has to offer once the full album is released, but I would be remiss to not feel nervous that they may have lost their defining attributes in the process.

“Valentine” was released on Nov. 5.

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