You’d be forgiven if you wrote off Tennis when they released Cape Dory in 2011. The indiesphere already had its hands full getting used to the fact that the affluent pop of Vampire Weekend was worth fully embracing, especially after they released Contra. Their story is one that speaks of a certain kind of person that’s difficult to take seriously: Alaina Moore (singer, keyboardist) and Patrick Riley (guitarist and bassist) fell in love after meeting in a philosophy class at University of Colorado, then wrote Cape Dory after eight months on a sailboat in the Atlantic. If you rolled your eyes at that, you aren’t alone – but others saw something in them, leading to a string of impressive producers helming their albums since then: Patrick Carney of the Black Keys handled their sophomore release Young & Old, before bringing in Spoon’s Jim Eno and the late, great Richard Swift for Ritual in Repeat, each of them helping their brand of indie-pop blossom.

Their progress from Cape Dory to Swimmer, the band’s fifth LP, seems obvious – their particular strain of pop-forwardness has become more and more polished with each passing release, but that was always there. But it’s only ever so polished, and Swimmer’s greatest strength – as was true of LP4, 2017’s killer Yours Conditionally – is that the shininess does nothing to undo how inviting and warm every song is. The echo of the piano that opens the album on “I’ll Haunt You” reaffirms that, and even when the synths come in you can’t help but focus on her piano playing – though it doesn’t help that “I’ll Haunt You” actively resists being the kind of pop gem you’d expect to open one of their records. It sets the tone for the entirety of Swimmer: breezy, inviting and often unexpected.

They save the true kickoff for song two, “Need Your Love,” which you may as well add to your Best Songs of 2020 list right now. It moves at an erratic pace, constantly shifting to be just a little bit different in speed and atmosphere while still sounding entirely cohesive, which is a truly satisfying trick. Really, no songs on Swimmer operate like you’d expect, but the way the pieces fit together is just as satisfying as “Need Your Love.” Two songs later, the glittering “Runner” seems primed for dancing, until you realize that Moore is using the disco-lite framework to namecheck Lot (and his salt-pillar wife, of course) and struggle with the Christian concepts of sin. Should that be on a synthpop record? Why not? After all, “Sympathy” did essentially the same thing last year.

“Echoes” is really the only misstep of the album – it’s charming and breezy, but the song’s lyrics – which describe the experience of being hospitalized for a non-epileptic seizure brought on by the flu, which nearly lead to the cancellation of a whole tour – feels too on-the-nose. It’s hard to care, though, as the high points are so bountiful: “Swimmer” bottles Riley’s memories of watching beach tourists while spreading his father’s ashes at sea and creates a swirl of sorrow, mirth and triumph that’s hard to not love. And then there’s “How to Forgive,” which strips most everything back, leaving us with bass-heavy catchiness but with a delightful amount of space to breathe. The break in between the first chorus and second verse is too long for a conventional pop song, but the extra couple seconds make the second verse feel like it was earned and gives you a chance to hear a lyric like “Can’t keep on hesitating/ It’s starting to affect my health” with uncluttered ears.

Like most bands after a decade of work, Tennis are now so far beyond their origin story that it’s no longer an excuse to not let their brand of indie-pop into your heart. With Swimmer, they do little to reinvent any of their own wheels, but their way of presenting incremental progress and definition from one album to the next is deeply satisfying. If nothing else, it’ll do a dynamite job of helping you forget we’re still months away from summer, where this record will be an even more welcome listen.

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