Perhaps a result of the surprise commercial success of the likes of Lana Del Rey, Marina Diamandis and Lorde, the late 2010s saw a boom in what some labelled the “indie sad-girl“. A few managed to become superstars in the indie world (most recently, Phoebe Bridgers), but most, it seemed, were destined to get lost amidst the hordes. If Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan never managed to reach the viral streaming success of the Bridger’s and Mitski’s of the world, she earned a name for herself as a “prodigy“. It would be easy to label her the “critics musician”, but that would dismiss quite how an important place ‘Lush’ occupies in so many listener’s hearts. Like her idol Liz Phair’s legendary debut album (‘Exile in Guyville’), ‘Lush’s’ initial commercial success may have paled in comparison to her peers, but by force of it’s greatness and the sheer devotion of her fans, it already feels like an indie-rock touchstone.
Like countless other young female musicians (Jordan was just 18 when ‘Lush’ dropped) fame took it’s toll; culminating in a 45 day stint in rehab. However, where as her peers (Clairo, Lorde) scaled back their sonic ambitions in the face of fame, Snail Mail’s sound is bigger and bolder than ever on ‘Valentine’; within a minute of the album beginning, we see tasteful orchestral arrangements replaced by head-thrashing power chords and electrifying guitar licks. The opener ‘Valentine’ is the most definitive indie rock statement since Phoebe Bridgers released ‘I Know The End’ early last year. Even when admitting defeat (“I lay down and start to cry”) she remains utterly captivating.
There’s nothing on here that sounds quite like the excellent, if somewhat misleading, lead single. Instead, what listeners get are nine concise, mature tracks that move from heart-wrenching balladeering to endlessly melodic numbers that are the closest things to pop she’s ever made (‘Ben Franklin’).
On a consistently strong track-listing, two perfect tracks jump out. Stripped back closer ‘Mia’ ends the album on the farthest note possible from opener ‘Valentine’. Jordan has made a career writing of the all consuming intensity of young love and young heartbreak – like an Indie-rock version of Olivia Rodrigo. Like ‘Lush’, most of ‘Valentine’ operates within this territory (“I’m like your dog” she declares on ‘Automate’), but on ‘Mia’ she realizes the necessity of moving on and how the end of a relationship doesn’t always mean the end of the love shared between the two. Addressing an ex-girlfriend, she sings:
Mia, don’t cry
I love you forever
But I’ve gotta grow up now
No, I can’t keep holding on to you anymore
Mia, I’m still yours
Meanwhile, the other perfect song ‘Forever (Sailing)’ captures a relationship on the precipice of breakdown. “I love you from the city to the stars”, Lindsey sings, briefly getting lost in nostalgia of the better days before being drawn back to present day, “But nothing stays as good as how it starts”. With a transcendent, dreamy chorus that interpolates Madleen Kane’s ‘You and I’, she paints a heart-breaking picture: “You and I / Like a ship, forever sailing / You and I / Everything we try is failing”. Lyrically, the chorus is almost a carbon copy of Kane’s, but the verses are distinctively hers: “Look at what we did / That was so real”, she sings; employing a quintessentially Gen-Z turn of phrase. Here she proves the true measure of a great artist; taking pieces of someone else’s art and transforming it into something unmistakeably her own. Or, as Elvis Costello put it when defending Olivia Rodrigo from accusations of plagiarising Costello’s own ‘Pump It Up’, “You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy.”
Other album – and career – highlights include the gloriously melodramatic ‘Madonna’, that is chock-a-blocked with religious imagery (“I consecrate my life to kneeling at your altar / My second sin of seven being wanting more”). ‘Glory’ meanwhile, contains a great quartet of Taylor Swiftian prose (“When it gets cold / We’ll move to Malibu / Where the drinks are hard / You make them go down smooth”). While the track immediately before this, ‘c. et. al’, contains the album’s most arresting, concise portrayal of depression and burnout:
Even with a job that keeps me moving
Most days I just wanna lie down
Sleep it away ‘til it’s nothing
And pull the blinds all the way down, down, down
Jordan said in the leadup to ‘Valentine’s release, that she had, understandably, decided to draw a greater boundary between her personal life and her music in order to protect herself. As a result, we only get two fleeting references to her stint in rehab, both in ‘Ben Franklin’, (“Post rehab, I’ve been feeling so small”, “You wanna leave a stain / Like a relapse does when you really tried / And damn, this time, I really tried”). However, any growing distance between Jordan’s own life and her writing, is not reflected in the listening experience; which is intense, arresting and affecting. To say she’s managed to maintain the song writing quality of ‘Lush’ would be wrong, because she’s improved on it. Everything on her second full length effort is bolder, more ambitious and fully realised; the vocals, the production, the lyricism. With ‘Valentine’, Jordan’s created an encapsulation of indie-rock at it’s very best. If ‘Lush’ proved her to be one of the genre’s most promising stars, ‘Valentine’ delivers on that promise and then some; right now, at this very moment, she’s one of the best in the game.
Best Tracks: ‘Valentine’, ‘Ben Franklin’, ‘Headlock’, ‘Light Blue’, ‘Forever (Sailing)’, ‘Madonna’, ‘Glory’, ‘Mia’
Worst Track: ‘Automate’, I guess?