“Doesn’t obsession just become me?” Lindsey Jordan asks about halfway through her new album. The bittersweet truth is she’s right. Passion and heartbreak have been the great themes of Jordan’s brief, brilliant discography as Snail Mail. On her potential-laden 2016 EP Habit, released by Priests’ Sister Polygon label — and even more so on her promise-fulfilling 2018 debut album Lush for indie-rock standard-bearers Matador Records — Jordan often sang about the kind of youthful fixation that makes another person feel like God and breaking up with them feel like the end of the world. She made both of those records as a teenager, and they burned with an intensity of feeling often associated with young adulthood, her husky alto spinning melancholy melodies over prodigious guitar playing informed by a long continuum of underground favorites. “I’ll never love anyone else!” she proclaimed on “Pristine,” evoking sentiments familiar to anyone who has ever grieved an adolescent romance.
Jordan is 22 now, and her second Snail Mail album is more “mature” in many of the ways you’d expect from a big-ticket indie rocker’s sophomore LP. Jordan co-produced Valentine with Brad Cook, who has helped artists including Bon Iver, Waxahatchee, and Indigo De Souza hybridize indie rock with an eclectic, sophisticated palette of influences. The huge, gleaming guitar sounds of Lush cede some of their sovereignty to synths and samples. The explosive moments are fewer and farther between, deployed with strategic restraint. What has not been reeled in is Jordan’s passionate longing. Valentine finds her more consumed by romantic despair than ever; it is a breakup record through-and-through, a kindred spirit with Melodrama and Sea Change and Blood On The Tracks.
It’s been more than three years since Lush made Jordan an underground sensation, and despite the low profile she kept throughout much of the pandemic, the interim between albums has been anything but placid for her. In the lead-up to Valentine she’s been open about how getting swept up in an endless cycle of touring and partying at such a young age sent her life spiraling out of control, resulting in a stay at a recovery facility where she began sketching out these songs. But the album suggests much of the upheaval in her life can also be traced to a romance gone awry. Jordan’s infatuation with this person looms large in every track — sometimes in flashbacks to happier times, but more often in glimpses of the paralyzing sadness and regret that comes with watching someone slip away and knowing you can never have them back no matter how hard you wish for it.
Jordan is good at making such ugly feelings sound immaculately pretty. On Lush, she transmuted her blunt, powerful voice into sighing asides and graceful beams of light, and her harmonically rich guitar parts unspooled into little riffs that worked as hooks in their own right. It was a platonic ideal of unabashedly poppy indie rock, dynamic and infectious, full of melody and personality. Anyone who’s heard Valentine‘s title track, lead single, and opening blast knows Jordan can still write the catchiest guitar bangers imaginable when she feels like it. When the chorus erupts “Kissing The Lipless”-style and she howls, “So why’d you want to erase me/ Darling valentine?” as if leading an army of guitars and keyboards to confront her ex? That’s the good stuff.
The hooks don’t stop there, but they’re often situated in fresh contexts that redraw the parameters of Snail Mail’s sound. On “Ben Franklin” Jordan curls her lyrics around a heavy groove, easing into the cracks and textures in her voice with every dart and weave as a sophistipop symphony dances to life behind her. Her singing is smooth bordering on celestial on “Glory”; on “Automate” she shifts from gorgeous exhales to quick flurries of notes and back. Her voice has become a deeply compelling instrument, like Kim Gordon with a softer touch. On Valentine it’s often accented with new sounds within the Snail Mail universe: a Summerteeth-like swirl of keyboard and piano sounds on “Headlock,” a mournful cello on “Light Blue,” pitched-down vocals bobbing in the waves of the chillwave-y Madleen Kane interpolation “Forever (Sailing).” The way the acoustic guitar and piano orbit Jordan on “Automate” is breathtaking.
Yet it’s easy to miss all the musical moving pieces at first because her lyrics on Valentine are so attention-grabbing. She sings with a conversational tenderness, peppering her songs with an endless stream of pet names — honey, darling, tiger, babe, superstar, baby blue. Although Jordan says she’s in character on “Ben Franklin,” flaunting a nonchalance she can only aspire to, its words feel pretty raw and autobiographical to me: “Moved on, but nothing feels true/ Sometimes I hate her just for not being you/ Post-rehab I’ve been feeling so small/ I miss your attention, I wish I could call.” These kinds of intimate confessions are all over Valentine. Sometimes they are grandiose: “I wanna wake up early everyday/ Just to be awake in the same world as you,” “I’ve come to hate my body/ ‘Cause now it’s not yours.” Other times they are simple, frank, and devastating: “We’re not really talking now,” “Tried life without you/ But you in that green sweater…” More than once she slips into outright fantasy rather than face the truth.
Valentine ends with Jordan sonically at peace but still at war with her own feelings. On the somber waltz “Mia,” her voice and guitar backed by Trey Pollard’s Spacebomb Orchestra, she admits it’s time to move on and grow up. Yet by the song’s conclusion she has returned to her obsession: “I wish that I could lay down next to you.” It’s a stirring finale that’s easy to envision as the last scene in a movie — Jordan alone at home dreaming of some alternate timeline, a prisoner of her own desire. Yet if Valentine is a tragic portrait of one woman’s personal wreckage, what it says about that same person’s creative horizons is wildly exciting. Obsession not only becomes her, it has yielded endless new possibilities for what she might become.
Valentine is out 11/5 on Matador.
Other albums of note out this week:
• ABBA’s Voyage
• Aimee Mann’s Queens Of The Summer Hotel
• Emma Ruth Rundle’s Engine Of Hell
• Nation Of Language’s A Way Forward
• Portrayal Of Guilt’s CHRISTFUCKER
• Dijon’s Absolutely
• Joan As Police Woman, Tony Allen, & Dave Okumu’s The Solution Is Restless
• Webbed Wing’s What’s So Fucking Funny?
• Summer Walker’s Still Over It
• Ben Chasny’s The Intimate Landscape
• Penelope Isles’ Which Way To Happy
• Wendy Eisenberg’s Bent Ring
• Hana Vu’s Public Storage
• Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats’ The Future
• Parcels’ Day/Night
• Connan Mockasin’s Jassbusters Two
• The self-titled debut from Hot Chip offshoot Hard Feelings
• Black Label Society’s Doom Crew Inc.
• SeeYouSpaceCowboy – The Romance Of Affliction
• Sloppy Jane’s Madison
• Brian Fallon’s Night Divine
• Australian art-rock supergroup Springtime’s self-titled debut
• Sitcom’s Smoothie
• Spectres’ Hindsight
• Test Subjects’ Study
• The Verve Pipe’s Threads
• Low Life’s From Squats To Lots: The Agony And XTC Of Low Life
• Tasha’s Tell Me What You Miss The Most
• Ìfé’s 0000+0000
• Curtis Harding’s If Words Were Flowers
• Gregory Porter’s Still Rising
• Hanson’s Against The World
• Jennifer O’Connor’s Born At The Disco
• Curtis Roach’s The Joy Tape
• Steve Perry’s Christmas album The Season
• Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ First Flight To Tokyo: The Lost 1961 Recordings
• serpentwithfeet’s DEACON’S GROVE EP
• Jaga Jazzist’s Pyramid Remix
• Radiohead’s KID A MNESIA