By Max Freedman
It’s easy to forget that Lindsey Jordan, the front person of esteemed Baltimore indie rock band Snail Mail, was literally a teenager during her breakout moment — until she remembers you in the most subtly brutal way. “I was really overwhelmed with a lot of decisions I had to make,” she tells MTV News of the months surrounding the release of her career-making debut album, 2018’s lush, “and I dropped out of high school.” The contrast is striking: Being a musician who tours, press, has a constant social media presence and hires a huge team requires a lot of big choices that non-musicians may not understand. Jordan had to make those choices right when she came of age legally. Many of the songs on her lush follow up, Valentine, showing off flashes of this tension between a younger, more innocent Jordan and someone suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
If Jordan, now 22, worked teen novels in near real time on lush, then further Valentine, she mourns past relationships, with something creepy new in the mix. These post-breakup reflections give a glimpse of how her public exposure affected her romantic partners as well. It’s a perspective rarely seen in pop music, and Jordan says “it just comes out when I talk about it” [these] relation[s].” In her memories of past loves, the hollowed-out privacy barrier she faced creeps in without permission.
This broken privacy barrier, Jordan suspects, is inevitable when music like hers reaches a wide audience. lush did, landed on many critics’ 2018 year-end lists, earning her festival slots with Firefly and Primavera Sound, not to mention tour dates alongside Alvvays, Interpol, and Yo La Tengo. “Making emotionally vulnerable music makes people feel connected [to you] in a way that is very intense,” she says. She also felt that the unique 21st-century “direct line of communication” that the Internet establishes between musicians and fans exacerbated this intensity. Social media felt like a “weird bubble where you don’t have to be a normal person because there are Instagram people out there who will love you no matter what. … Being in a feedback loop isn’t good for your mental health.”
This statement comes closest to a widely applicable hot take that could make headlines; only a few years into her twenties, Jordan already realizes that her real life perspectives may be more valuable to share. So she returns to the first person to wrap up a thought on social media: “I didn’t need validation anymore and I didn’t have to see any of the mean stuff.”
Valentine is also highly autobiographical, and throughout the, fragments of the constant commentary and watchful eyes of fans resurface as she revisits past relationships. The album evokes how when you go through a long period of really terrible emotions you may think you are solely responsible for your ailment, but when it is all in the past you can see the outer roots of your trauma with in the eye-catching clarity. It all comes with mid-tempo music that is among the moodiest and – it may be said – most lush yet, with string sections and Jordan singing in rasper tones more often. As she outgrew her teenage years, she sanded down the roughest edges of her voice, leaving behind a more mature, nuanced register and range.
on ValentineOn the title track, she asks a partner in a I-just-wake-up voice, “Those parasitic cameras, don’t they stop staring at you?” All around them synths glitter and drums murmur in a Twin Peaks-meets-chillwave way that evokes mixed happiness, fear and trauma. For the rest of the song, however, she focuses on her signature unrequited love. On “Forever (Sailing)” she sings “Don’t Show Them We Don’t Owe It To Nobody,” on another song about losing an old flame to someone else. She rarely leaves her eerily low register, cycling through her misery over a lament of guitars and mellotron-esque synths. As she reminisces about this relationship, that ever-ubiquitous crumbled privacy barrier sets in and disrupts meaningful moments for both partners.
“The dynamic,” Jordan says, “is one where neither person is set on privacy.” The way it’s inserted into her lyrics almost without permission, on an album she describes as mostly about “love and loss and things like that,” reflects how inescapable her public fame felt. His semi-accidental presence on Valentine may also stem from how few roads she had to vent about it. She had Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield (“my best friend, probably”) active “through a lot of this stuff with me.” (Crutchfield provides backing vocals on the synthy, bassy highlight “Ben Franklin”, the only Valentine track where Jordan mentions her 45-day stint at a treatment center.) But at the same time, her high school friends “went through so much that… not me, just in a real-life context.” They may have enjoyed the almost responsible time off between high school and college, while Jordan “did this job that’s unique because you get good at one skill, and those skills are separate from anything in the real world. The growing gulf between herself and her peers left her ascent and acclaim feeling deeply isolated.
That loneliness pervades Valentine. Even the softest, slowest songs on lush felt like they were being played in front of a crowd, but otherwise? Valentine‘s “c. et al.” and “Mia”, you can imagine Jordan getting together with just a few other people in a small, enclosed space. The strings on the latter are especially moving, and they are among Jordan’s most exciting new ideas. She brought them to the table with full support of Valentine co-producer Brad Cook, a partner of Bon Iver and Waxahatchee who co-produced another pivotal indie-rock release in 2021, Indigo de Souza’s Any shape you take. Cook, Jordan says, was “really cool letting me take the reins as a co-producer and leaving a lot of things up to me to decide.” Every new instrument they put together was entirely meant to “emphasize what’s already there.” …Having a string crescendo [or] bring a certain tone to a synth[s] the message home.” So is the astonishing breadth of her voice’s “soft moments, non-soft moments, and intimate moments.”
These choices pay off on ‘Glory’, where cello swells in the verses and amplifies the melancholy of the guitars. They disappear into the chorus, but the solemn tone they’ve set helps Jordan’s low hum of “You’re me / You own me” clearly defeated rather than angry, and the way they use the simple words “owe” and “own me.” ‘ sound, almost indistinct, paints a clear picture of her head whirling emotional state. On the chorus of “Headlock”, pianos – mostly unheard of on previous Snail Mail songs – imbue the chorus with a twinkling, resigned nostalgia that makes the straightforward lines “Man Enough To See This Through / Man, I’m Nothing Without You” feel infinitely more devastating.
“Is it something I can’t get to?” asks Jordan towards the end of the track. While she’s ostensibly talking about the romance that defines the song, it’s tempting to read a staggering double meaning. As a breakout musician dealing with all the accompanying exposure, more and more ordinary experiences felt unattainable, if not deeply meaningful, to her as she went through circumstances completely alien to the people in her life. That is the duality of Valentine, although that fading privacy barrier is still not the main point. If it goods, she probably wouldn’t release another album and plunge back into the same public fame that underpins these songs. If something, Valentine helped her process everything. “I felt quite exposed and confused,” she says, “but in the end I think it could have been a lot worse.”