Rarely when uttering the words “for better or for worse” on their wedding day do couples really consider the latter half of that sentiment. Most of life’s darkest days often occur after two people have committed themselves to one another: loved ones fall ill or die, responsibilities mount and any number of unexpected catastrophes may land on your doorstep. You’re not seeking a partner for a pleasure cruise, but rather for an intrepid, Magellan-style circumnavigation, in which sailors get scurvy or fall overboard because they mistook a manatee for a mermaid. There are moments of wonder and discovery, but often those are bookended by rough seas.
Married duo Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, better known as Tennis, have recently endured one of the most difficult stages of their life, but found solace in each other throughout. Following the commercial success of Yours Conditionally in 2017, Moore wound up in the hospital with a bad bout of the flu, Riley’s father Edward died of cancer and his mother Karen was hospitalized “on the brink of a stroke,” Moore recalls. Swimmer was borne from this heart wrenching period of time, a fitting name considering the sailing motif in Tennis’ discography (Cape Dory recounts their post-college sailing trip along the East Coast, and most of Yours Conditionally was written during their journey at sea from San Diego to the Sea of Cortez). Moore herself never learned to swim, just as most of us are not taught how to navigate the choppy waters of grief and strife.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of good old-fashioned romance here. You know that moment in movies when time slows around two protagonists about to fall for each other? “Need Your Love” captures that precise feeling in the chorus: The upbeat tempo slows down to an intimate, ’70s-esque sway just in time for you to join hands with whoever’s caught your eye as Moore croons, “I need your love and I need your touch like I need a bolt of lightning from the sky above.” “Tender as a Tomb” is another frothy addition, with the same beachy vibes as Vampire Weekend’s Contra.
Soon, though, we’re back to the murky waters Moore and Riley have traversed, though sonically, most of the album is as buoyant as previous Tennis efforts. “Echoes” touches on her time in the hospital, a delightful mix of distorted vocals and fervently strummed guitar reminiscent of Phases-era Angel Olsen. Moore sounds almost wistful as she recalls, “suddenly I’m 33 and on a gurney.” The cheery nature of the song might seem dissonant, but it’s fitting considering that, even when ill, she finds comfort in having Riley by her side.
The title track takes the album to an even more contemplative place, with Moore recalling scattering her father-in-law’s ashes, “now dispersed so casually like sediment into the sea.” It’s by far the slowest song on here, with the repetitive guitar feeling akin to watching waves lap the shoreline. After all is said and done, Moore and Riley try to return to normal life—“One stroke at a time on my way back to land / It’s better for me with my feet in the sand”—but recognize that there’s plenty outside of their control: “Some summer you have planned for me, emptied into the sea.”
By the end of the record, Swimmer shows itself to be Tennis’ most conceptually complete work to date, capping it all off with “Matrimony II,” a follow-up to Yours Conditionally’s “Matrimony.” While both serve as tributes to their relationship, the former puts actions above words. On 2017’s “Matrimony,” Moore professed over high, churchy synth that it “Doesn’t matter if we’re rich or poor / The less we have, it makes me love you all the more.” It’s the kind of lyric that feels appropriate for young love, brimming with idealism and devotion.
These past three years have taken the couple on quite the journey, though. “So much for my vows, more concerned with the here and now,” she sings on “Matrimony II,” highlighting their newfound focus on one another in the wake of tragedy. The chorus itself has the same belt-worthy passion of the best of The Carpenters, bringing the record home on a solid note.
Throughout Swimmer, Moore and Riley’s love is treated like an inevitability, as natural and overwhelming as a rip tide. She mentions “the gentle pull of gravity that’s being-unto-death” on “Matrimony II,” echoing the sentiment of album opener “I’ll Haunt You,” in which she sings of being “drawn to you like the horizon” and how “all my need is pulling me closer.” No matter what life throws at them, Moore and Riley are a safe harbor for one another, just like their music is for anyone who’s a romantic at heart.
Revisit Tennis’ Daytrotter session from 2010: