Presumably, the consensus starting point in conceding dazzlement before the art of Snail Mail remains the songwriting precociousness of Lindsey Jordan. She’s not a kid anymore, as she most certainly was when her first recordings were released. Jordan’s debut effort under the Snail Mail moniker, Lush, set music critics in a frenetic tumble to rave about the emotional acuity in her lyrics, citing her unadvanced age without fail. Jordan turned twenty-two this past summer, old enough that her personal reportage of heartbreak and thwarted plans no longer feels wholly ahead of her years. Paul Westerberg was about that age when he wrote “Within Your Reach,” and it felt right enough. The tendency to keep artists trapped within our collective first impression of them is the only real reason to treat Jordan as a prodigy rather than a settled creator, determined to offer up her best when the digital representation of tape starts rolling.
Valentine, the sophomore album by Snail Mail, demonstrates that Jordan’s best is mighty impressive. There are probably more modern comparisons I could or should make, but I can’t shake the idea that she’s snatched up the baton bobbled a few years back by Death Cab for Cutie and gone sprinting around the track at a pace that threatens to lap any other artists trotting in adjoining lanes. The material lilts and lofts, its enticing indie-pop textures the coating that helps the tough medicine of sometimes acrid lyrics slide right down. The album-opening title cut proceeds unsteadily, almost by fits and starts in the verses until it absolutely soars on a chorus of wounded defiance: “So why’d you wanna erase me, darling valentine?/ You’ll always know where to find me when you change your mind.” It emits fragility and assurance at once.
If Lush could sometimes be a little sonically same-y, Valentine provides a corrective without spinning out into radical reinvention. “Light Blue” rides on a plunky acoustic guitar as a musical current, and “Forever (Sailing)” is sliced by exploratory synths. “Glory” approaches the hypnotic layering that the likes of Waxahatchee and Sharon Van Etten are able to swirl up as if through prestidigitation. There’s a strong sense that Jordan is asserting her creative voice as she tests its range and boundaries. There is a tight control to her craft — not a single strand is out of place — and yet the explorations found across the album are enlivening.
Maybe the one aspect of the material on Valentine that does feel jarring given the year on Jordan’s birth certificate is the candid confessions of substance abuse that landed her in rehab. She notes it directly against the clunking funk groove of “Ben Franklin,” singing, “Post rehab, I’ve been feeling so small/ I miss your attention, I wish I could call.” More often, it’s woven into the songs, another ruffle of dependency in a messy psychological self portrait. The woozy sparring match “Automate” includes rueful acknowledgments of constantly reaching for one more drink before slumping into bed with a partner. “Picked it up, drank too much/ Feed the flame forever,” Jordan moans, and the words carry scars.
Valentine is a good enough album to provide a decisive argument in favor of a certain thesis: Age matters far less than talent.