For all of the musical progress Tennis made between their 2010 debut Cape Dory and 2014’s Ritual in Repeat, they still felt like a band in search of an animating purpose. Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley wrapped bittersweet melodies around perky travelogues and dreamy, yearning ballads, but their writing tended towards the distant and unknowable. Despite Moore’s graduate-level vocabulary and obvious lyrical ambition, the duo always felt little more than a step away from a line Moore sang on Ritual in Repeat highlight “This Isn’t My Song”: “It’s nothing profound / just a sweet sound.” That’s why the band’s new album Yours Conditionally feels like a such a breakthrough: they’re finally transcending that sweet sound by writing around a few central questions with focus and purpose.
The questions are Moore’s: how do you reconcile the love you feel for someone with your sense of duty as a feminist? How can you give yourself over to someone without losing yourself in the process? These are the kinds of questions that emerge over the course of any long-term relationship, but they’re amplified when a) you’re a woman and b) your healthy marriage is the foundation of your artistic narrative. Moore has emboldened herself by tackling these questions head-on; it’s remarkable how far she’s come since Cape Dory, in terms of both assertiveness and vocal prowess. Instead of burying herself deep within grainy mixes, she’s come to the forefront of her songs with a distinctive presence: a lost gem from the early ‘70s, all biting wit and bruised heart.
At its best, Yours Conditionally finds Moore striking a delicate balance between good humour and genuine frustration. She’s become one of music’s most effective practitioners of sarcasm: her writing is funny on its face, but you can hear the venom dripping from her voice. On the buoyant “My Emotions Are Blinding,” she strikes a cartoonishly hysterical figure: “If the night goes exactly as planned / I’ll be giving all my attention to the world’s most interesting man.” (By the time she hits the chorus, her titular emotions are driving her to the brink of death.) She affects a saccharine coo on early single “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar,” bending over backwards to make her partner’s dreams come true. And while “In the Morning I’ll Be Better” sounds like an early Todd Rundgren single at first glance, there’s domestic discontent bubbling beneath the surface. “I’ll wrap myself around you where we can’t be found,” Moore sings. “I’ll hide you from the world ‘til we’re forgotten.” It’s menacing, not romantic.
Even the breeziest songs on Yours Conditionally — some of them written during a sailing trip mirroring the one that famously gave birth to Cape Dory — ring with an unexpected complexity. “Fields of Blue” draws you in with placid oceanic imagery, but there’s some internal strife at its core: “I really love you / Oh, what’s the use in resisting?” You can feel Moore being tugged at from both ends: a pure and powerful love up against a primal sense of self-preservation. “Matrimony” is a straightforward girl-group love song, but it feels more like a dream sequence than a real scene from Moore and Riley’s marriage given the framing detailed above. That’s the album in a nutshell: even the sunniest fantasy gets cut with a healthy bit of doubt.
Yours Conditionally is the product of a leap of faith in every respect. Moore and Riley sailed into the Sea of Cortez to rediscover the creative magic they’d lost over the last half-decade; they left their label behind in favor of total independence; they produced the album themselves in a Colorado cabin after years of turning to pros like Richard Swift and the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney. In short, they’re making music with the same abandon that’s driven their life together. Think about it: Moore and Riley left law school dreams and decent livings behind to sail up and down the coasts and make lives as professional musicians. They’re a pair that work best without a safety net, and Yours Conditionally is their best album yet because it realizes the power of that kind of urgency.