For their debut album, Tennis famously wrote and recorded in a makeshift studio on a sailboat. Gliding through the Atlantic ocean alongside the East Coast, the tracks on ‘Cape Dory’ reflected their experiences of the trip, documenting a sound that was smooth, intimate and brimming with adventurous anecdotes. It was an admirable, if not gimmicky, accomplishment and four albums later, Tennis have returned to the water for inspiration. This time, it’s in the Sea of Cortez off the coast of Mexico where they docked for ten straight days to write/record ‘Yours Truly’, a collection of sparkling, summer-infused tracks that continue to explore Tennis‘ trademark themes of love, loss and gender politics within the contemporary climate.
From the very first listen, it’s clear that the isolation surrounding the recording process has transcended into their musical landscape. The arrangements are soft and tropical, with bubbly synths and hazy guitars taking centre-stage, refining the edges of Tennis‘ key lo-fi sound. Each track glides by effortlessly, never once overstaying its welcome as they sail along calypso-infused groove-lines, soaking up the sun on a vast canvas of endless ocean. The haziness works well individually and provides a surge of levity to the already delicate melodies. On closing track ‘Island Life’, the rhythmic, woody drums beats combined with distorted and lethargic guitar grooves work harmoniously to create a rich, multi-layered sonic landscape. Unfortunately, as a whole collection, these tracks start to leech in and out of each other, each feeling like a derivation of the other. Consistency is never usually a damning criticism, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling off been there, done that, especially when ‘Yours Conditionally’ doesn’t stray very far from the Tennis‘ earlier musical outings.
Opener ‘In The Morning I’ll Be Better’ is an anomaly on the collection, and for that very reason stands out as one of the strongest tracks on the album. It’s minimalist melody, driven entirely by guitarist/vocalist Alecia Moore’s understated vocals that are heightened three-fold by Tennis‘ lush, multi-layered production. Tennis acknowledge the intertwined relationship between power and fragility with such singular focus it’s hard not to be blown away when Moore declares “Though our bodies have betrayed us in a million ways/In the morning I’ll be better yeah”. ‘Please Don’t Ruin This For Me’ encapsulates a beautiful sense of urgency and restrained in Tennis‘ lyrics once more. “All my dreams so deeply hidden/Rise up to their throat unbidden”, Moore coos through a haze of crooked guitars in warm, soulful defiance. It’s a delicate, nuanced moment that is ultimately diminished by a wave of tropically influenced drum beats that send the track hurtling towards twee territory. These powerful attributes are shot through negative space and any sense of pain and isolation is wilfully surrendered in favour of keeping these tracks light and breezy.
It’s a shame that this trend continues throughout the album because vocally and lyrically, Moore has never been stronger. She’s clearly grown throughout these five albums and her vocals have an added edge of confidence whilst retaining a sense of understated delicacy. ‘Ladies Don’t Play Guitar’ is Tennis at their caustic best, presenting a sly yet playful ballad about gender politics that feels refreshing as it is vital. But again, the lyricism is betrayed by the lack of precision in the music’s framework, failing to really cut deep on the moments where it has the power to.
And herein lies the biggest problems with Tennis‘ latest output. This is not to deny the artistry on display and it’s to their credit that each song feels elegantly crafted, but the album as a whole is a fleeting experience, lacking in sonic experimentation that would have allowed the chance for each track to stand on their own. More disappointingly is that the songs themselves don’t provide an expansive enough canvas to play against Tennis’ ambitious meditations on contemporary life. The simplicity of their production doesn’t place focus on these lyrical gems, but rather denies them a chance to shine. Powerful words don’t always result in powerful music and it’s a shame that the music underscoring the writing dilutes Yours Conditionally greatest strength. As a result, these biting lyrical musings seem lost at sea in a quiet storm of smoky guitars and flatlined synths.