Tenci’s A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing Balances Dreams and Darkness
The Chicago indie-rock band’s sophomore album plays with new sounds to breathe life into refracted memories and imaginative imageryMusic Reviews Tenci
Chicago indie-rock quartet Tenci are at home playing on the fringes. Their 2020 debut My Heart Is an Open Field dwells in the bardo between freak-folk and slowcore rock, mixing pedal steel and falsetto croons with intimate images of grief. In this landscape, songwriter and lead vocalist Jess Shoman dwells on hairs knotting together in a bathtub, a beloved horse with a forgotten name, a mother muttering in a voice message that she hopes she isn’t a nuisance to her child.
A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing charts a new course, lending Shoman’s sensitive songwriting eye to narratives of transformation and rebirth after loss—as well as the growing pains that follow. The album’s intensely personal content flows directly from their own journals, a dreamscape of monstrous clowns and magical transfigurations. “I’ll show you how I’m changing,” they invite on the opener “Shapeshifter,” before confessing “I’m a thick lagoon, butterfly with clay-sewn wings.”
With these themes in mind, Tenci dive into an expanded sonic playground. Their sound twists with vocal distortions and new shades of shoegaze, evoking Mazzy Star and the recent work of Big Thief and Alex G. Curtis Oren’s saxophone steps to the forefront as a surprise duet partner for Shoman, roaring to life on “Be” and accompanying their descent to a husky alto with a driving consistency. Interwoven with lyrics that ask ,“What do I have to do to be good like you?” and insist, “I’m as quiet as can be,” the horn emerges as a kind of outlet for unspoken emotion, a thread that continues throughout the album’s stages of metamorphosis.
A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing is playful at its core, taking familiar images and refracting them or replacing them with changelings. In “Great Big Elephant,” an idiomatic “elephant in the room” is made flesh, the only one willing to call a destructive relationship what it is. In “Memories,” meanwhile, childhood home videos play in the background as Shoman watches a mirror dissolve back into sand, only to reform as a pair of glasses.
“Vanishing Coin,” an early single, dives headlong into the childlike elements of this fantastical imagery. The music video finds Shoman performing classic tricks in a magician’s outfit, sliding cards between their fingers and painlessly removing the tip of their thumb. In the lyrics, they describe being tossed aside “like pennies in the fountain,” their guitar bouncing with Midwest-emo arpeggios alongside bassist Izzy Reidy. Eventually, the magic gives way to the bald truth: a plaintive cry that “I thought that we were friends.”
On “Cold Dirty Water,” the band return to and intensify their folksy roots, with Shoman warbling over an uptempo beat that initially masks the uncomfortable retelling of a loved one lashing out at a misbehaving puppy. They return to canine imagery on “Swallow Me Whole, Blue,” lingering on their mother’s story of a childhood dog who was killed by neighborhood kids and their own desire to root out the “poisoned bone” Blue was given from the inside. These mistreated pets haunt the edges of A Swollen River, ultimate innocents who must either be mourned or saved. Their presence forces the question: Why not give yourself the same care?
Tenci reaches a climax on “Sour Cherries,” where the anguish of change finally erupts. Shoman seems to talk back to themself on the track, asking, “How did you get yourself here?” and “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” between images of bruised and rotting fruit and being absorbed into a lover’s bones for nourishment. The song flows from a stripped-down rumination into a cresting wave of sound with Oren at the helm, who opens up the track to create space and dissonance for the others to play in. “Sweet poison, wrap your arms around me,” Shoman begs, before screaming, “Love is sour cherries”—an acidic fruit with cyanide at its core.
After this emotional release, the bassy consistency of “Two Cups” promises a sense of peace, a conclusion to A Swollen River, A Well Overflowing’s emotional arc. The song begins with a few final misfired attempts to communicate—a glass pressed against the wall, a makeshift telephone made from cans and string—but these are put aside for a new focus on finding fulfillment alone. In the music video, to emphasize this, the members of Tenci traverse a technicolor fairground, fighting alternate versions of themselves through games of ring toss and tug of war before eventually coming together. “I won’t wait, I won’t wait,” the two Shomans promise, their hands joined as the others urge them on and ordain them with plastic princess crowns. “I won’t wait to fill my cup.”
Annie Parnell is a host and writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in The Boot, PopMatters, Audiofemme and elsewhere. She can be found identifying native plant species in her backyard, on Twitter at @avparnell, or at her website, avparnell.wordpress.com.