For years, I assumed Tennis was a gimmick. The band’s first album, 2011’s Cape Dory, was a jangly collection of indie-pop songs that detailed the time married members Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley spent sailing along the Eastern Seaboard. The music was fine, but the album’s promotion didn’t concern itself with the songs so much as the narrative behind the record’s composition, a story that only seemed to confirm the Millennial stereotypes of privilege and affluence. I knew that these kinds of roll-outs were inevitable, especially for a new group. Labels and publicists long for stories that allow their artists to cut through the internet’s content over-saturation. At the same time, music publications seem to reward those acts who are savvy enough to garner features and think-pieces guaranteed to generate clicks. Still, it felt cheap, as if the band had been assembled specifically to cater to a niche demographic. I wasn’t interested.
But when I finally saw them perform by chance in 2017, it only took a few songs to become a fan. Gone were the cute nautical tales and general preciousness. Instead, I saw a tight band playing R&B-inspired earworms with a fierce intensity. It was as if they’d realized that they didn’t need any narrative beyond the most obvious: that Moore is a magnetic frontwoman, an immense talent who is capable of controlling an entire room with little more than her voice. The band’s latest album, Swimmer, shows that they’ve only continued to move forward. It’s a distillation of everything they do well and further establishes them as a dynamic, sophisticated pop act worthy of even bigger rooms.
If there is a narrative for Swimmer, it’s that these songs were written in response to the kind of grief that comes with getting older: persistent illnesses, aging parents, and unexpected deaths. The result is an album that asks big questions about faith and commitment, yet never stumbles into self-righteousness or self-seriousness, likely because the band has a way of disguising even the most dramatic forms of anguish as something lighthearted. Take “Runner”, one of the record’s catchier singles, where Moore sings from the perspective of Lot’s wife, damned for glancing at Sodom and Gomorrah, over a cheerfully woozy synth. Likewise, “Need Your Love” could be mistaken for a straightforward love song until Moore’s tone shifts from giddy to grave, and the object of her affection shifts from lover to creator, highlighting the fine line between devotion and captivity.
It helps, too, that the production, handled at home by both Moore and Riley, is the best of the band’s career, with lush soundscapes, crisp percussion, and a persistently gripping low-end ー together, these elements push the songs to fantastic heights. More than anything else in their discography, Swimmer makes the case that Tennis are a band worthy of even larger audiences. The sleek mix from Claudius Mittendorfer makes that a genuine possibility, just as he did for Parquet Courts on their similarly expansive Wide Awake.
The album concludes with “Matrimony II”, a sequel to one of the standouts from 2017’s Yours Conditionally. But where “Matrimony” was an ideal soundtrack for a hipster rehearsal dinner, its sequel sounds like Carole King amid an existential crisis. The song encapsulates the deep sense of connection that arrives long after the initial glow of a relationship. As the world crumbles, Moore realizes all she has is the person standing next to her, and that that’s enough. It abandons the romanticism of earlier albums in favor of a hardened, yet nonetheless affecting realism. And that alone might speak to the strength of Swimmer, an album that recognizes writing about love doesn’t have to conform to a tidy narrative to be authentically moving.