Music Reviews

Snail Mail Valentine

(Matador) Rating - 8/10

In 2018, Lindsay Jordan, the mastermind behind Snail Mail, received heaps of praise for all the right reasons. There wasn't anything showy or contrived about the just-turned-19-year-old singer-songwriter, whose songs of young love and the confusion that comes with it spoke to a new generation of listeners. Her debut LP, Lush, sounded spare, bright, and a little fussy, on which she allowed its clean guitars to flourish. As intoxicating as Jordan's vocal cadence was—simple yet emotional—it also inspired the possibility of what she'd be capable of once she took her music to new and exciting places.

If Lush represents Jordan's growing pains, its tense strumming styled in controlled disarray, then Valentine shows the unraveling of her confusion and torment. Her disillusioned romanticism still balances just the right amount of sweetness and melancholy, but the arrangements now rush forward with mighty force. We assume that Jordan will keep the mood restrained on the initially quiet title track, hanging on to a crumbling relationship. That is, until its calm ambient passage tears into a guitar assault along with her intense self-loathing: “Now I can't hate you/ I ruined me for you.”

Jordan is beginning to embrace a more playful side to quell her otherwise 90s alt-rock posturing, adding synth touches (Ben Franklin) and orchestration (Light Blue) as she details stories about life post-rehab and burgeoning queer love. The former marks an especially formative period for Jordan, who found herself tackling her demons head-on after becoming an overnight success. On the driving, splendidly tuneful Glory, she's blunt about the unsteady give-and-take that's bringing the relationship down: “You own me/I could never hurt you, my love.” Many of the risks she takes on Valentine align naturally with her growth and maturity, returning to the essence of her musical journey after taking refuge at her parents' home during the pandemic.

In her unassuming way, Jordan is such a magnetic presence because she fully embodies her distress. But it's also easy to forget how the album's more robust musicianship comes from her building the project into a full-fledged trio. Her words still feel intimate, but it does not just come from a place of introspection—she turns outward a little more, and the results are positively exhilarating. Even if she checks the “Sarah McLachlan ballad” box on Headlock, the touches of flanged distortion add personality and gravitas to the performance. And, let's be honest, Automate is a direct pastiche of the tender side of grunge but in the best possible way. It's also the best track Jordan has ever written, on which she meshes together ravishing fuzz and oscillating, Jerry Cantrell-like guitar accents into a haunting chorus.

Even on the closer Mia, Jordan refines the hushed folk-driven tendencies of her debut with an acoustic waltz that soars even as she laments. She makes it clear that she is ready to move on, expectant of what the future holds. And though it may seem commonplace compared to the latest crop of younger indie artists, Jordan conveys that hurt with poignancy and conviction. Some of the naggier aspects of her music remain, especially her strained, prickly inflection, still somewhat forced and certainly an acquired taste. But all told, there's no denying that Valentine is a singular statement that is profoundly genuine at every turn.