At SXSW 2017, Everyone’s Talking About Snail Mail

The Snail Mail narrative is one we’ve heard before. Lindsey Jordan is young. Young enough to still be in high school. She’s an accomplished guitarist and songwriter who sounds much wiser than her 17 years. Jordan’s been written about by major music sites on the strength of the band’s 2016 EP Habit and now I imagine every A&R person, booking agent, PR rep in the biz wants to work with her. Snail Mail is the band that everyone is talking about at SXSW this year in part because they’re one of the buzziest rock bands that still haven’t signed their forthcoming full-length, which Jordan is still working on, over to anyone. They’re also one of the buzziest rock bands because they’re really fucking good live.

Jordan has a voice that only comes along every now and then. It’s hard to hear what I’m talking about when you listen to Snail Mail’s recordings, but if you ever get a chance to see the band you’ll hear what I mean. Jordan’s voice is massive. At a certain point during Snail Mail’s set at Cheer Up Charlie’s, a friend turned to me and compared her to Courtney Love. Jordan’s voice doesn’t sound like Love’s, but she is able to fit a universe of emotion into a single turn of phrase without any vocal affectation in the same way that makes Hole a great band. Whether she’s muttering or shouting, you feel the heartbreak, the frustration, the joy that came with writing these lyrics.

The other thing Jordan knows how to do really, really well is structure a song. Not one of the songs Snail Mail performed yesterday sounded alike, and they each have some small hook that, accompanied with Jordan’s frank lyricism, draws you in. Like when she sings about breathing “in twos and fours” or asks some nameless person whether or not “everyone holds their breath around you?/ I know I do.” There’s an innocence to those lines that could seem juvenile, but they’re delivered with such conviction that they capture what it feels like when your confidence is shaken, regardless of how old you are. My favorite lyrical moment of yesterday’s set came when Snail Mail played their song “Dirt.” There’s a breakdown toward the end when Jordan yells: “And oh god/ It’s not funny/ It’s not funny/ It’s not funny!” Her face was flushed and she lifted her guitar up while she shouted about the unfunniness of it all. I wanted to know who the song was about. That’s what good lyricism does.

Snail Mail closed their set with their best-known song, “Thinning.” Jordan wrote it when she was bedridden with a really bad case of bronchitis. Her body felt like it was “thinning out” and disappearing from the world. The hook on “Thinning” is so damn good that half the audience was singing along aloud. “Thinning” could just be an excellent guitar pop song, but knowing its backstory made it sound much bigger than that. It was powerful to watch Jordan reclaim a shitty time in her life and sing about it to a bunch of adoring strangers in order to get to the next phase.