I have a distinct memory of the first time I used the term “Pop Music”.
I wouldn’t have been any older than 10; before that music is just music, isn’t it? Slash is a rock star who makes Rock music and Lil Wayne is a rapper who makes Hip-Hop, but genres don’t really mean anything to you yet. My 3rd (maybe 4th) grade class was in the middle of our weekly visit to the school library, where the lovely octogenarian librarian would teach us about the Dewey-Decimal system, what glue they use in paperbacks, or some other piece of literature-adjacent information we’d never actually use in life. We were tasked with filling out some kind of “about us” worksheet about our favorite genres of things.
A lot of this was pretty easy for the 8 (9?) year-old version of me. Favorite genre of movie? Action, duh. Favorite genre of book? Sci-Fi, maybe Fantasy, but we’ll put sci-fi. TV? Cartoons of course.
But when I got to music, I was stumped. Not because I didn’t have as much interest in music as movies or tv, but really the opposite. Music was just starting to become my favorite art form- not that I realized that- and I had legitimate opinions forming in my head. The key word there though is forming. I didn’t know why I liked the songs that I liked, or preferred certain artists to others, I just knew I liked something. A favorite genre was not on my radar yet. And of course my answer to this question was of the utmost importance. I was about to tell the whooole class something about myself. This was about to become an undeniable piece of my public image, an ever-present facet of my identity. I had to get this right.
(No, 8-year-old me did not know what anxiety was).
Rock music? No no, I’m a nice person rock can’t be my favorite, they do drugs and drink the alcohol.
Hip-Hop? They do drugs, drink the alcohol and swear a lot, I’m a nice person rap can’t be my favorite.
Country? Country sucks. (I’d already figured that out at least).
I’d recently learned exactly what “pop music” meant, probably overhearing my sister watching some VH1 “Behind the Music” episode. And I knew Michael Jackson- who’d been my introduction to music- was the “King” of pop. But only girls like pop music, right? Hannah Montana and Britney Spears are “pop” singers, right? I can’t say pop, I’m a boy.
(No, 8-year-old me hadn’t considered the stupidity of the gender binary yet).
I was and unfortunately still am a pretty indecisive person, so when it came time to share answers I panicked and wrote pop. Then sweated in my little plastic chair waiting for my turn.
“Pop.” I said plainly when asked, my heart bursting out of my chest.
“Pop?” The librarian said incredulously. She was appalled (to this day I’m not sure why). I was dying on the inside.
Years have passed of course and as I grew older, music became more and more interesting to me. I was playing the trumpet and discovered Billboard not long after that story, then became old enough to sit in the passenger seat and thus entrusted with the radio. I got an iPod nano for my 10th birthday, and after we finally got a shared family laptop, had access to the internet. I stopped buying action figures with the little money I acquired and instead starting buying iTunes gift cards, slowly building my own taste. While rock, rap, and jazz quickly came to the forefront of my palette, my taste expanded to virtually every genre that wasn’t country (still sucks). Music and my knowledge of music became a huge part of my self-image, and like any music nerd, that came with a level of snobbery. I’ve always been a pretty self-aware person and did my best to avoid the textbook snobbery. Justin Timberlake was my shit. Maroon 5 was my first favorite band, and I’ll still stand by “Songs About Jane”, and at least the singles from “It Won’t Be Soon Before Long”. I loved Gwen Stefani’s solo work way before I discovered Tragic Kingdom. But the snob in me still took any opportunity to voice my disgust for the Taylor Swifts, Justin Biebers and OneDirections of the world. Pop music could be good, but it usually wasn’t and it belonged on fringe of my listening palette- like any good music fan.
My distaste for the poppiest pop peaked in my late teens- like most music snobs- and while I still see no appeal in Taylor Swift’s music, I don’t feel guilty anymore listening to Dua Lipa’s new single or Harry Styles’ “Fine Line”, or actively try to dislike the most popular songs out there to feel superior (most of the time…).
With the rise of Hyperpop and the likes of Rina Sawayama and Caroline Rose putting out great records in 2020, I’ve probably listened to more pop music than ever this past year. But Rina wasn’t pure top-40 pop, she peppered in everything from metal to new jack swing on “Sawayama”. Caroline wasn’t bubble-gum, she played with structure and was a focused, witty songwriter.
Which brings us to Tennis. To avoid making any of this sound like a back-handed compliment, I’ll sum up my review here: “Swimmer” may be my favorite album of 2020.
“Swimmer” is my introduction to the Indie-Pop duo Tennis made up of Alaina Moore & Patrick Riley, a married couple. I wasn’t even aware of them until “Need Your Love” played on Spotify Radio after I finished my initial listen of Joji’s “Nectar” (really good, like a lot of albums over the last few years it needed to trim some fat), so I was late to the band and even late to this album.
TRACK BY TRACK
I’ll Haunt You
The understated opener is brief, operating as a sort of “where we are now” statement before diving into the record, and that statement is: I’m getting older, and being with you makes that seem good. Will it always be like this? The track is simple, but with purpose- the thesis to Swimmer as a whole. Piano drives the song along to the outro where Moore questions “How Long can we stay like this” as the drums pick up urgency before dropping off a cliff into Moore’s gorgeous falsetto
Need Your Love
The 2nd track and 2nd single is a 180 from the opener’s idyllic celebration of love. Like a movie that starts with the ending before the main character asks “bet you’re wondering how I got here?”, here Moore sings over percussive piano stabs in the verse about a toxic love affair with someone who sounds like what I imagine Mark Zuckerberg was like before Facebook. She knows he’s the worst (you’ve got more poison than sugar) but despite that- well, you can see what the song’s called. The concept isn’t exactly ground-breaking, but the USP of the song is the abrupt change from verse to chorus, as the sparse instrumentation slows, the staccato piano blends into the background, and a simple yet effective bassline backs a sugary, smooth chorus.
How to Forgive
This is probably Moore’s best vocal performance on the album, the verse sung in breathy tones in a key pushing towards the top of her vocal range, before jumping into a killer chorus straight out of shimmery 80’s pop. Again, the concept is tried & true- Moore struggling to coming to terms with the end of a relationship- but we get one of the better lines on the album in the last chorus: “I’d move on if I could only remember, all that it takes is just an act of surrender”. The bridge blends seamlessly into this extended final chorus, making for the most dance-inducing moment on Swimmer.
The lyricism gets much more conceptual on “Runner”, with a number of biblical references ranging from the promised land & sin to Sodom & Gomorrah. The lead single touches on disillusionment with the church & religion, while pivoting around a chorus about fully committing to a relationship. The verse again features dreamy piano chords driving the beat forward, this time with an airy guitar riff to go along with it. There’s slight tempo shift- little faster this time- as synths take over on the chorus and the drums sound like they’re ramping up to some kind of bedroom-pop beat-drop. The syncopation on the bridge creates a fantastic groove, once again providing a subtle, yet gratifying build-up to the last chorus.
Echoes brings the first dip in the tracklist, especially coming on the heels of “How to Forgive” & “Runner” two of the 3 tracks on Swimmer that I think shine just a bit more than the rest. There are not many Tennis tracks without love as a theme and while this is not one of those cases, here the focus is instead on a trip to the emergency room. A pair of guitars- one very syrupy playing a beachy riff and one with a much cleaner sound- create a very carefree sound to juxtapose with the subject matter, which doesn’t quite work. It’s a nice enough vocal performance and I certainly wouldn’t say it’s a lowlight, but the breezy tone coming right on the heels of “Runner” needed stronger songwriting to really land like the first 4 tracks.
Luckily right on Echoes’ heels comes the title track, the 3rd highlight I alluded to. Here we get the cleanest bassline on the whole album and it’s- say it with me kids- simple but effective, creating a gloomy, almost creepy tone when paired with the guitar arpeggios on this ballad. This is by far the darkest song on the album, as Moore sings about spreading a father figure’s (“I’d take up swimming for the patriarch”) ashes at the beach. She ponders death and how “natural” it seems, almost as easy as the tourists around her jumping into the water- death the last thing on their mind, maybe foolishly. This song best encapsulates why I love this album- there’s nothing particularly complex happening lyrically or musically, but nothing feels extraneous or unnecessary. Every word and note has purpose, and despite being so accessible you can tell how meticulous Moore & Riley were in writing their newest record.
Tender As A Tomb
Tender as a Tomb is the most straightforward song on a very straightforward album. Moore & Riley are in love, it’s fuckin’ great and they’re not gonna question it. We get another beachy guitar riff here, but the rest of the instrumentation feels a bit buried and washed out. With nothing much to sink into lyrically, if Swimmer has a lowlight this is it. Following up maybe the strongest song on the album does what was already a weak track no favours.
The penultimate track on the album continues the “being in love is dope” narrative from the last track, but there’s a lot more going on here thankfully. The song opens with just a simple acoustic guitar as Moore begins singing about a late night in the arms of a lover. The chorus perks up with another guitar riff, and a driving bass drum, closing with some of the cleverest lines on the album “Like Mary Magdelene, I’m on my knees, but if you see me as a saint you’d be mistaken”. Another blended chorus, this time melding into the outro, creates a summery swell as Moore proclaims to be “free for the first time”.
The closer- a sequel to 2017’s “Matrimony” found on Tennis’ last studio album “Yours Conditionally”- opens again with piano chords serving as the backbone to this glossy love song, eventually joined by celebratory strings and chamber pop-esque drums. Moore sings about the joys of marriage, really knowing her partner and how love has turned from just a feeling to a “gentle pull of gravity”. I’ll say it one last time, there’s nothing particularly daring happening here, but the songwriting has so much character to it without being flowery or at all cliché, the most common pitfalls for a love song.
Months into “Swimmer” being in my daily rotation, I still love this album but my enjoyment probably peaked at the first listen, often the case with pop albums. And it made me think about how my listening habits have grown and change. Like I said, I’d been listening to more pop than ever in 2020, but listening to more pop is one thing. An unabashed pop album being my Album of the Year was another. My favorite album of 2019 was Tyler, the Creator’s production tour de force “Igor” and 2018 was the noisy, glitchy “Veteran” by Jpegmafia. Billie Eilish & Angel Olsen had cracked the top 5 in 2019. Warts pop up upon further listening, and some melodies stop hitting quite as hard, so “Swimmer” didn’t quite end up as my AOTY on further consideration. But after first listen “Swimmer” was number one in my mind, and in a bit of a full circle moment my music nerd ego was totally cool with that.