An instinct to impose a flat surface over a multi-dimensional reality has been a source of human error since the beginning of time. Resisting that instinct is where magic happens.
Tennis have had a lot of flat surfaces placed over their reality, basically since they debuted in 2011. And it’s easy to see why; Tennis are easy to romanticize. A beautiful, young married couple that sails around the world in seemingly unattainable luxury, writing dream-worthy indie rock, being madly in love, waking up with perfect hair? It has to be straight out of a 1940s romance. Tennis’ shiny seafoam surface practically breeds easy misconceptions about who they are or what their music is. But to apply neat and tidy storybook tropes to real human beings would be to miss the boat on Tennis completely.
Most know the ocean for the glistening surface that our eyes can understand immediately, yet understanding it for the complex aquatic universe that it truly is requires a multi-sensory journey miles below the surface. In the same way, understanding Yours Conditionally requires you to throw away what you think you know about Tennis upon first glance in favor of exploring their music and its intricacies.
“People just imagine someone drinking a martini with a white glove. People think we’re so posh and bougie, but we haven’t bathed in a month, and we’re wearing ragged and disgusting clothes, and haven’t eaten,” Alaina Moore says.
“We don’t look like our press photos when we’re sailing,” Patrick Riley adds.
On Yours Conditionally, their stunning fourth album, the excruciating work it takes to sail a boat is like the engulfing struggle of love with an asterisk, of being underestimated and misunderstood, of counting on the storm to end. The breezy strums under Alaina’s intoxicating voice teases you in, but what keeps you there is the brash reality—and the oversimplification of women as creative entities and as human beings—it explores. These songs’ lyrical intelligence demonstrate the danger of falling into misconceptions and taking Tennis at face value.
When writing Yours Conditionally, Alaina had to face the fact that idealization doesn’t magically end at ourselves either, especially as a woman. When you’re birthed, brought up and bathed in shallow depictions of your own identity, it takes some digging to remove what’s been unwillingly imposed on you and get to the core of your own complexities. You want so desperately to be an easy pill to swallow, but you’re left with the reality of your human self. Alaina found herself buried in expectations, asking herself if what she was writing was her own voice or the voice of the person that she “should be.” Yours Conditionally doesn’t care if it’s easy, and that’s what makes it a can’t-miss album.
“People want female songwriting to be more diaristic. “Come into my heart and let me show you what I’m feeling today,” you know? If I wanted to do other things, I felt very intimidated by that,” Alaina said. “Once I realized that I was unintentionally governed by these things—not like I lost myself—but I felt like they were holding me back. I decided to push against them more purposefully, and I got into that a little on Ritual on Repeat but got really into that instinct when writing this record.
Her pushback often takes the form of the sarcastic winks and sharp retortion, effective musical eye-rolling. She plays with common convention of feminine irrationality in “My Emotions are Blinding” playfully teasing impositions like “I get hysterical, it’s empirical” and “I’m just a vehicle for the material.” Similarly, in “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar,” she sighs mockingly, “Ladies just need your love; don’t you know we are all caught up in it?” Her smart subversion alone is a testament to Alaina’s willingness to throw pleasantries out the window in favor of honoring a realistically complicated womanhood.
Luckily, dynamic women and depictions of women are becoming increasingly common in the creative realms and mainstream society. Yours Conditionally isn’t unique in its feminist commentary, but rather its approach to feminism from Alaina’s position in a more traditionally romantic situation: being young and happily married. Her situation alone offers itself to starry-eyed simplification, but the album aimed to dissect these notions. She had to find a space where being a wife and being a feminist were not mutually exclusive, but informed each other and existed harmoniously.
“Allowing myself to feel stereotypical things that I feel like make me not a good feminist—like if I’m thinking of motherhood or being a wife, I feel like I’m betraying my feminism in some way—but also allowing myself to carve out my own identity, and asserting myself over and against those things,” Alaina clarifies. “I can write love songs, and also be cynical about them. I’m really trying to straddle both of those things at once.”
Tennis’ success on Yours Conditionally, and Alaina’s success in tackling complex femininity within it, was born through allowing themselves to expand. In the same way that the sea provides them a never-ending expanse, Tennis freed themselves from expectations that fogged their music and grew far beyond them. Alaina did the same in allowing her womanhood just be what it is without fear of judgement. She’s neither a boring woman singing about her unconditional love for her husband nor a dark and difficult critic. She’s just a real woman artfully speaking to her own experiences in music as scopic and beautiful as her truth.
“I allowed myself to indulge in the full spectrum of femininity in my relationships. I feel full devotion and romantic love—because I have those feelings and it’s not like I never do, because it’s not like I’m a total cynic or nihilist—but I also have limits to my devotion. I am my own person, and I don’t want my identity to be absorbed by my husband. I don’t want us to be Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Riley,” Alaina says.
Long before growing into their own on Yours Conditionally, Patrick and Alaina had to overcome their own lack of expectations and doubts of themselves when they became a band in the first place. Their initial instinct was simply to write music without further pretense or intention to do anything more with it. They had no aspirations of being a blog buzz band; no music school training, no desire to move to a hip neighborhood to be seen by the right people. They didn’t try to get on blogs, and never thought that the songs they were writing on a post-marriage sailing trip—which Patrick had been saving up for since he was 12, and they were taking before entering the post-college real world—would amount to anything but a cool thing they did on their honeymoon. Alaina was applying to law schools around the country, and Patrick had a stable, well paying job at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver.
Even after their first couple singles lit up the Internet, they still weren’t sure they should leap into being professional musicians.
“We were actually worried we were blowing up our stable path of adulting,” Alaina says. “But then I got rejected for law school, and the week my final rejection letters came out was the week that Fat Possum made an offer. So I was like, “Whoa, destiny.””
The duo’s self-produced Fat Possum debut, Cape Dory, came out in 2011, and was a neater version of the Chillwave that was powering Pitchfork and Stereogum. The songs sounded like surf-rock-ified versions of ‘60s girl group songs, and sounded like it was written by the inexperienced, but searching duo Patrick and Alaina were at the time.
In quick succession, Tennis wrote and recorded their sophomore album, Young and Old, which was produced by the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney. The pressure on them as musicians and songwriters started to build.
“Before we got signed to a record label and were making music as a “profession,” we wrote Cape Dory for ourselves. It wasn’t supposed to be released or anything. Our friend convinced us to start releasing the songs, and that sort of snowballed into the professional side of it,” Patrick says. “When we wrote our second album, that was a whole different thing. We were suddenly writing for an audience. We do this for a living now, we have to write an album for other people now.”
The group signed to a bigger label for their third album, Ritual In Repeat, and were suddenly tasked with having to please A&R people, and radio people, and other label side people putting new demands on a band that never thought they’d be a band in the first place.
“The third album we were writing for critics and an audience. I felt like it was multiplying all these concerns, and there were all these consequences outside of it, instead of it just being something for the sake of itself,” Alaina said. “Our A&R people weren’t super hard on us. But it is someone else to, excuse the metaphor, take the wind out of your sails. If you were feeling really good about something, and being like, “This is awesome!” they’d be like, “No, I don’t see a future in this.”
“We had situations where we’d say, “This is Alaina and I’s favorite song on the album, this should be the single,”” Patrick adds. “And then the record label comes back and is like, this doesn’t have three choruses, so of course this can’t be the single.”
“It started to feel like our heads were full of those concerns, day in and day out. We weren’t writing music that felt natural, or a reflection of ourselves,” Alaina said. “Trying to do that again started to feel elusive to outright unobtainable.”
To try to recapture the feeling that anything was possible, that they were writing for only themselves, Tennis decided they needed to get back on the open sea. They also opted out of all label contracts--that deal with the bigger label afforded them the option to go independent; they’d had to write their last two albums in a crunch when they were reaching the end of the profits of the album before it--and decided to go entirely on their own. They weren’t beholden to anyone but each other, and damn the critics, the sales, and everything else.
“We figured that if we want to blow up our own career, we won’t drag anyone down with us; it would just be us on the sinking ship,” Alaina said. “We felt freer, because when you don’t feel accountable to anyone else, you can just choose your own path.”
“We kind of thought that even if this album tanked, at least we got to make the album we wanted to make,” Patrick adds.
The freedom of no regrets, and the freedom of being able to chase whatever sound they wanted led to the loosest Tennis album yet. Where they used to sound like a winsome mid-’60s pop group, now they sound like the folk-pop singer songwriters who came a couple years later. That’s borne out in the sound of the record, but it’s most felt in Alaina’s more assertive songwriting.
“I feel like it’s taken me a long time to find my writing style, and I kept seeking out and channeling things that didn’t really suit me, and when I tried to translate it to my writing, it didn’t work out for me,” Alaina said. “But then when I found women from the ‘70s and late ‘60s who composed on piano, and I feel like I found a whole series of mentors, and I feel like they unlocked a whole part of me I wasn’t utilizing in my writing. Carole King, Judee Sill, and Laura Nyro are my patron saints of songwriting.”
First single, “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar” is where you can most hear the Carole King influence; it’s a wry song, delivered to a partner, with smirked promises of changing oneself to be what the partner needs. The narrator has no desire to do so, of course. The sauntering “Baby Don’t Believe,” the halting “My Emotions Are Blinding,” and the pleading “10 Minutes 10 Years” sound like they could have come from any King release between 1972 and 1976, too.
Tennis heaves their influences into 2017 relevance with heaps of beachy glamour and hints of glittery seduction atop artists like King’s earthy movement. Songs like “Modern Woman” echo modern uncertainty with wandering panging guitar lines and cumulating vocal layering alongside the steady strums and full, rooted vocals that serve as nods to their past heros. The same can be said of “Fields of Blue” with its contemporary harmonies and static-y distortion flirting with a clean and jazzy acoustic base. They consistently prove their ability to draw from their influences without jeopardizing their own unique sound and place in modern life.
But the thrill of Yours Conditionally is how these influences, Alaina’s songwriting growth, the band’s label turmoil, the gnarly sailing trip, the taking-back-the-reins of their art all converge to make this feel like the definitive Tennis album. We don’t know if Yours Conditionally will launch Tennis up into some stratosphere, to some unobtainable success level they haven’t reached before. We don’t even know if this is the best album they’ll ever make.
But we do know that the sense that Tennis are going all-in on this album is palpable, and picking this as Record of the Month, and going all-in with Tennis, was a no-brainer for us.
“We’re not terrified about the reception of Conditionally the same way we were with other albums. We cannot predict how people will react to it,” Alaina said. “If people don’t like it and this is it, I’ll be like, “Well, we had a nice run. And there’s a whole other life we could have, and that’s OK.””
Additional reporting by Andrew Winistorfer
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, the Head of Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.