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Snail Mail knows young love is a risk. On 'Valentine,' she dives in anyway

Snail Mail's sophomore album is called <em>Valentine.</em>
Tina Tyrell
Courtesy of the artist
Snail Mail's sophomore album is called Valentine.

When an 18-year-old Lindsey Jordan released her debut album as Snail Mail, she was deemed "wise beyond her years" ad nauseum. With that record — 2018's Lush — the slacker-rock wunderkind had accomplished more in her first year out of high school than many musicians fathom accomplishing in a lifetime. While her friends were settling into their freshman years of college, Jordan was accruing accolades from numerous publications, a coveted signing to Matador Records and the title of "the future of indie rock." She toured the world and brushed elbows with her heroes. Where on earth was she supposed to go from there?

Understandably, Jordan found that being named the Next Big Thing before she could even legally order a beer was a heavy cross to bear. Citing the stress of having thrown herself into her music career while she was so young (the earliest Snail Mail material dates back to when she was just 15), the now 22-year-old spent a month and a half in a rehab facility late last year, where she had no phone and no proper recording equipment. When she emerged, she finally felt ready to assemble Lush's ambitious follow-up, Valentine. While its predecessor approached love with a sense of wide-eyed innocence ("Don't you like me for me?" she begged on "Pristine"), Valentine, which Jordan wrote by herself in her childhood bedroom during 2019 and 2020, is a collection of shockingly frank reflections on romance that often highlight the ugly sides of a partnership gone awry. If Lush documented the euphoria of first loves, then Valentine is a bitter snapshot of the startling moments when you realize even the most promising relationships aren't guaranteed to last forever.

Wearing her heart on her sleeve is nothing new for Jordan, but she's expectedly gone through a lot of emotional upheaval since Lush, and she's not afraid to confront the hardships she's faced with a blunt transparency. On the sweet, fingerpicked "c. et. al.," she spells out the pressures of being indie rock royalty: "Even with a job that keeps me moving / Most days I just wanna lie down." She directly references that aforementioned treatment program in the synthy groove "Ben Franklin": "Post-rehab, I've been feeling so small / I miss your attention, I wish I could call." She's also a self-proclaimed perfectionist, which as a songwriter, means each word is sung with an abundance of intentionality: "You'll always know where to find me when you change your mind," she hollers on "Valentine." Her choice to say "when" rather than "if" is deliberate, and all the more excruciating. It's these subtleties that distinguish and amplify Jordan's songwriting.

As Jordan has undergone personal evolution, her sound has undergone a similar transformation. She recorded Valentine in Durham, N.C. with producer Brad Cook, whose resume includes the most recent albums by Waxahatchee and Bon Iver — artists who, like Snail Mail, have built upon their scrappy beginnings and opted for a more expansive sound in their latest records. While Lush embraced the no-frills indie rock of her Matador predecessors like Pavement and early Liz Phair (unsurprisingly, Jordan played in a Liz Phair cover band in high school), Valentine sees Jordan adopt a wider array of influences to her benefit. She channels the thumping pop-rock of Garbage on "Ben Franklin," the mellow R&B of early Nelly Furtado on "Forever (Sailing)" and the distorted chug of Drop Nineteens on "Glory." On the title track, she flits seamlessly between lethargic, synthy verses and an arena-sized chorus. The throughline between all these modes is Jordan's attention to detail, allowing even the most seemingly left-field songs feel authentically Snail Mail.

But what's most notably changed between Lush and Valentine is Jordan's voice, which has graduated from a childlike drawl to become fuller with a wider range. On the spare acoustic ballad "Light Blue," she confidently wears a featherlight falsetto: "Nothing's gonna stop me now," she repeats, her voice gliding with impeccable control. Meanwhile, on "Valentine," she assumes a raw, heart-wrenching belt that blazes with betrayal and extreme desire.

As her star has grown, Jordan knows that eyes are consistently on her, and the armor of being a teenager — the freedom to present yourself immaturely — has been shed. Jordan has discussed her remorse over exposing too much of herself emotionally during the past two years. She's also said that in this iteration of Snail Mail, she actively avoids looking "messy" to the public eye as she goes about life. From the first few seconds of Valentine, Jordan makes it clear that she's craving some semblance of confidentiality: "Let's go be alone," she murmurs in the album's opening lines. Lush was commended for its candor upon its release, but on Valentine, Jordan is seeking a little more balance: wanting to stay true to herself as someone who admits to "feeling things really hard" while acknowledging that her openness in her music – and the resulting, often overwhelmingly positive reception to it – has led to new pressures.

Juggling the desire for integrity and the assumption that your words will be examined like a petri dish of your own agony is a near-impossible task in the age of celebrity gossip Instagram accounts. Despite that challenge, though, Valentine sees Jordan recommitted to the searingly specific in her music. Bearing your heart is as much a liability for an artist as it is for anybody in love; the fact that Jordan does both in Valentine is a declaration of her devotion to sincerity. Throughout Valentine, she skips the metaphors in favor of pet names and specific anecdotes: She alludes to envisioning her own death on "Headlock," to disgruntled attitudes towards sex on "Ben Franklin" and to binge-drinking her way through a party on "Automate." Her choice to be forthright now is riskier than it was when she was a teenager writing Lush, before she was certain anyone would ever hear it. But with these songs, she implies that for her, the potential reward is far more monumental.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Abby Jones