By Max Freedman
It’s easy to forget that Lindsey Jordan, the frontperson of esteemed Baltimore indie-rock band Snail Mail, was literally a teenager during her breakout moment – until she reminds you in the most subtly brutal way. “I was really overwhelmed by a lot of decisions that I had to make,” she tells MTV News about the months surrounding the release of her career-making debut album, 2018’s Lush, “and I was leaving high school.” The contrast is striking: Being a musician who tours, does press, maintains a steady social media presence, and hires a huge team requires lots of big choices that non-musicians might not understand. Jordan had to make those choices right as she legally became an adult. Many of the songs on her Lush follow-up, Valentine, boast flashes of this tension between a younger, more innocent Jordan and one suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
If Jordan, now 22, worked through teenage romances nearly in real time on Lush, then on Valentine, she mourns relationships well in the past, with something eerie newly in the mix. These post-breakup reflections come with glimpses into how her public exposure likewise affected her romantic partners. It’s a perspective rarely seen in pop music, and Jordan says that “it just comes out when I'm talking about [these] relationship[s].” In her memories of former loves, the eroded privacy barrier that she dealt with creeps in without permission.
This broken privacy barrier, Jordan surmises, is inevitable when music like hers reaches a wide audience. Lush did, landing on many critics’ 2018 year-end lists and earning her festival slots at 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’s really intense,” she says. She also felt that the uniquely 21st-century “direct line of communication” that the internet sets up 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 that will love you no matter what. … Being in a feedback loop is not good for your mental health.”
This statement is as close as she comes to a broadly applicable hot take that could make headlines; only a few years into her twenties, Jordan is already realizing that her actual lived perspectives might be more valuable to share. That’s why she pivots back to the first person to wrap up a thought about social media: “I didn't need any more validation, and I didn't need to see any of the mean stuff.”
Valentine is likewise highly autobiographical, and throughout it, fragments of the constant commentary and watchful eyes of fans pop up as she revisits past relationships. The album evokes how, when you're going through an extended period of truly awful emotions, you might think you’re solely responsible for your ailing, but once it’s all in the past, you can see the external roots of your trauma with glaring clarity. It all comes with mid-tempo music that’s among Jordan’s moodiest and — dare it be said — most lush to date, with string sections and Jordan more frequently singing in raspier tones. In growing out of her teenage years, she’s sandpapered her voice’s roughest edges and left behind a more mature, nuanced register and range.
On Valentine’s title track, she asks a partner in an I-just-woke-up voice, “Those parasitic cameras, don’t they stop to stare at you?” Around them, synths gleam and drums murmur in a Twin-Peaks-meets-chillwave manner that conjures intermingled bliss, anxiety, and trauma. For the rest of the song, though, she focuses on her signature unrequited love. On “Forever (Sailing),” she sings, “Don’t let ’em see, we don’t owe it to nobody,” on a song otherwise about losing an old flame to someone else. She rarely leaves her gravelly low register, cycling through her woes over a dirge of guitars and mellotron-like synths. As she reminisces on this relationship, that ever-pervasive crumbled privacy barrier comes scything in, disrupting meaningful moments for both partners.
“The dynamic,” Jordan says, is “one where neither person is set up for privacy.” The way it juts into her lyrics almost without permission, on an album she describes as primarily about “love and loss and stuff like that,” reflects how inescapable her public exposure felt. Its semi-accidental presence on Valentine might also stem from how few paths she had to vent about it. She did have Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield (“my closest friend, probably”) actively “working through a lot of this stuff with me.” (Crutchfield provides backing vocals on the synthy, bassy highlight “Ben Franklin,” the only Valentine track on which Jordan mentions her 45-day stint in a treatment facility.) But simultaneously, her high school friends were going through “so much that...I haven't, just in a real-life context.” They might have been enjoying the nearly responsibility-free time between high school and college, while Jordan was “doing this job that's unique because you're getting good at one skill set, and that skill set is separate from everything in the real world.” The growing gap between herself and her peers made her ascendance and acclaim feel deeply isolating.
That loneliness pervades Valentine. Even the softest, slowest songs on Lush felt like they were being played to a crowd, but on Valentine’s “c. et. al.” and “Mia,” you can envision Jordan convening with only a few other people in a small, enclosed space. The strings on the latter are especially stirring, and they’re among Jordan’s most exciting new ideas. She brought them to the table with full support from Valentine co-producer Brad Cook, a Bon Iver and Waxahatchee affiliate who co-produced another pivotal 2021 indie-rock release, Indigo de Souza’s Any Shape You Take. Cook, Jordan says, was “really cool about letting me take the reins as a co-producer and left a lot of things to me to decide.” Every new instrument they added together was fully intended to “emphasize what’s already there. … Having a string crescendo [or] a certain tone on a synth bring[s] home the message.” So, too, does the astonishing breadth of her voice’s “gentle moments, not-gentle moments, and intimate moments.”
These choices pay off tremendously on “Glory,” where cello swells in the verses reinforce the guitars’ melancholy. They disappear in the chorus, but the solemn tone they’ve set helps Jordan’s low-register hums of “You owe me / You own me” come off plainly defeated rather than angry, and the way she makes the simple words “owe” and “own” sound nearly indistinct paint a clear picture of her head-swirling emotional state. On the chorus of “Headlock,” pianos — mostly unheard of on previous Snail Mail tracks — 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 one more thing I won’t get to?” Jordan asks toward the track’s end. Though she’s ostensibly talking about the romance defining the song, it’s tempting to read a gutting double-meaning. As a breakout musician dealing with all the attendant exposure, increasingly many ordinary experiences felt out of reach, if not deeply meaningful, to her as she went through circumstances entirely foreign to the people in her life. That’s the duality of Valentine, though that fading privacy barrier is still not the main point. If it were, she presumably wouldn’t be releasing another album and diving back into the same public exposure underlying these songs. If anything, Valentine has helped her come to terms with it all. “It left me feeling pretty exposed and confused,” she says, “but ultimately, I think it could've been a lot worse.”