Indie

Snail Mail Grows Up On ‘Valentine’

When I interviewed Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail in 2018 I was — like the scores of other music journalists who spoke with Jordan upon the release of her debut Lush — thoroughly charmed. She was funny, self-possessed, and seemingly wise beyond her relatively young age of 18. While she was appreciative of the hype that greeted Lush, a surprisingly classicist ’90s guitar rock throwback, she was also refreshingly skeptical of the media narratives already being projected upon her music.

“I’m just a songwriter before anything else,” she said. “It’s mostly the categorization of Snail Mail being this woman-centric rock outfit that has everything to do with my age, gender, and sexuality, and nothing to do with the music… [It] feels like a pat on the back that I don’t want, for things I can’t control.”

Wow, I thought. She really is going to take over the world.

As impressive as Jordan was, however, I also couldn’t help feeling a slight twinge of concern. She seemed to be working awfully hard at an age when most people are doing bong rips and playing video games. Snail Mail was fixture at indie festivals and music websites. There wasn’t an opportunity — a tour, an interview, a TV appearance, a streaming video performance — that she seemed to turn down. And then there was the cult of personality surrounding Jordan, which resembled similarly intense fan bubbles around other young woman indie artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski, Lucy Daucus, Julien Baker, and Clairo. Like those singer-songwriters, Jordan was adored for vividly recreating personal traumas in her music, to the point of fostering a devoted (and potentially toxic) following that crowded out all appropriate personal boundaries.

Judging by the very good new Snail Mail album out Friday, Valentine, Jordan has set about re-establishing some of those boundaries. In recent interviews, Jordan has talked about a 45-day rehab stint that occurred after the busy Lush tour cycle. She also references this in one of the most stinging tracks from Valentine, the deceptively poppy synth-rocker “Ben Franklin.” Elsewhere on the album, nearly every song includes a lyric that could be construed as a comment on Jordan’s own suffocating indie fame, including the title track (“Those parasitic cameras, don’t they stop to stare at you?”), the wistful jangler “Headlock” (“Felt the crowd was wrong to claim you / Won’t they ever quiet down?”), and the wispy bedroom folk number “c. et al” (“Even with a job that keeps me moving / Most days I just wanna lie down.”)

In an interview with Pitchfork, Jordan admitted she used to “channel the actual events of the songs” she wrote, which would sometimes cause her to break down on stage. She’s since come to see how unhealthy this is. “It was exhausting,” she said. “My emotional boundaries are so different now. Like, they exist.”

But is that a risk? Fans of Lush responded to Jordan’s eagerness to expose herself in her music, particularly as a young woman with an uncommon ability to articulate feelings most people her age struggle to fully grapple with. On Valentine, she’s just as honest and insightful, it’s just that the message is, “Step off, please.”

The “reaction to indie fame” aspect of Valentine is only one part of the story. This is also Jordan’s “level up” record, the ambitious follow-up to the ingratiating but relatively simple Lush. On the first record, she focused almost solely on guitar, to the point of aligning herself with indie “shredders” like Kurt Vile and Steve Gunn. But on Valentine, she’s expanded her musical palate significantly, layering her songs with keyboards and strings in a manner consistent with “mature sophomore efforts” from young indie phenoms.

Assisting Jordan is producer Brad Cook, an increasingly common presence in the liner notes of acclaimed indie albums. At times Valentine resembles one of Cook’s most celebrated recent productions, Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud, another post-substance abuse effort marked sonically by a roomy, expansive naturalism. The arrangements on Valentine are more expansive than on Lush, most notably on “Forever (Sailing),” in which Jordan sings about an obsessive relationship over a bed of piano, synths, a sneaky-jazzy bassline, and drum machines. On “Madonna,” she dabbles in bump-and-grind R&B on the verse before unexpectedly downshifting to a chunky indie-rock chorus. For “Light Blue,” a stark acoustic melody is elaborated with a string section that edges Jordan in a coffeehouse direction.

For Jordan, the grown-up, MOR indie of Valentine is a subtle hint that she’s no longer a precocious wunderkind of Lush, and therefore shouldn’t be fetishized solely for her youth or confessional lyrics. And yet Valentine isn’t fully grown up, just as nobody at 22 is fully grown up. Jordan still portrays herself in these latest songs as a person who falls in love a little too hard, and then has to deal with the consequences when things fall apart. This, of course, is the most “young person” subject matter imaginable. (She apparently wrote the songs for Valentine back at her childhood bedroom in Baltimore.)

Along with the asides about indie celebrity, Valentine unfolds like a song cycle in which the protagonist drifts into romantic obsession before slowly coming to accept the punishing reality of being alone. This point arrives on the album’s final track, the doleful “Mia,” in which Jordan sings in a cracked, vulnerable rasp, “Lost love so strange / And Heaven’s not real, babe / I wish that I could lay down next to you.”

Herein lies the tricky balance that Jordan strikes successfully more often than not on Valentine — she’s moved on from childhood, but not all the way. She’s expanded her musical range, but the core intimacy of her songs remains their most urgent attribute. Her heart has been broken, but she has the wherewithal to move forward. She may have reset her boundaries, but Snail Mail’s music is as inviting as ever.

Valentine is out tomorrow on Matador. Get it here.

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