TENDER

Flux is defined as “the action or process of flowing or flowing out,” but also as a period of “continuous change”. The latter definition is why it’s the perfect title for TENDER’s third album. In the five years since the release of second album ‘Fear of Falling Asleep’, James Cullen and Dan Cobb moved out of the place they shared as housemates – Cullen lives in London, with Cobb now in Brighton – but also became fathers, with their lives dramatically changing in that time.
 
Since forming in 2015, the duo have become masters of balancing bedroom pop intimacy with festival-sized ambition, with their superbly composed alt-pop songs gaining fans in NPR, Stereogum and beyond as well as hundreds of millions of streams. A steady progression and refinement of their sound followed on debut album ‘Modern Addiction’ (2017) and follow-up ‘Fear of Falling Asleep’ (2019).
 
The period following their second album then saw Cullen spending half his time in London and half in the States with his American partner. On the day he was set to fly back to the UK in late 2020 for visa reasons, he found out that he and his partner had fallen pregnant. As they weren’t married, he remained unable to re-enter the US due to COVID-related travel bans, unaware whether he would be able to be in New York for the birth of his first child.
 
“Coming back to London and not knowing when I could get out there was pretty wild,” he reflects. “We knew that we were going to inevitably end up together, but it was a question of how to navigate the process during that minefield. The next nine months were incredibly stressful and difficult.” Managing to get special dispensation from the US government due to his partner’s pregnancy, he arrived in New York a month before the birth in summer 2021, with the couple then bringing their newborn baby back to London, where they now live together and are married, in that October.
 
This intense, emotionally exhausting period of time is documented on the album’s hazy, beautiful title track. “Nobody but you,” the refrain repeats, with the idea of what’s important in life truly coming into focus. It’s a lyrical perspective that defines the album, and though flux can feel disorientating, it also puts things into perspective and makes prioritising far easier. “All of this stuff happening and the changes that both of us have gone through inevitably finds its way into the music,” Cullen says. “We didn’t set out to write about this stuff necessarily, but it definitely ended up making its way in here.”
 
“We’re not the most open people in real life,” Cobb adds, “so having the outlet to say something really emotive and honest through the music is really useful.”
 
To transmit Cullen’s most personal lyrics on any TENDER songs to date, the album’s production pushes his vocals to the fore more than previously, allowing their meanings to permeate further. “I would always try and hide the vocals as much as possible because I wasn’t confident in the singing,” he says. “This one feels more up close and personal, and it was about me trusting in them. They’re not so muddy – it’s all there for people to hear.”
 
After the birth of Cullen’s child, Cobb visited him at his south east London home studio to work on what would become ‘Flux’, providing relief and focus through which to channel all this change. It results in TENDER’s most focused and beautiful album yet.
 
“It felt like a great release to be able to have that time to focus purely on something that I was interested in and I wanted to do and wasn’t all about someone or something else,” Cullen says. “With everything up until the point where you become a parent, you’re quite selfish without realising it.”
 
Cobb adds: “You have to withdraw from your normal life in a way. As they grow up, you also go through your own period of finding out who you are as a person again. You’re a new person but with all your old traits, and I found it a little bit hard mentally to figure out my place in the world again.”
 
Though the album’s emotional core is the most personal and intense of any TENDER album, these changes and revelations also make ‘Flux’ their loosest and most fun record yet. Opening song ‘Cutting Grass’ – a track about realising what’s truly important and not taking things for granted – flows with an undeniable danceability, shaking off the heaviness of the last few years with a defiant, fun-filled shrug.
 
It’s the same on lead single ‘Daydreamers’, based around a glorious pitched-up vocal. While the album’s second half is more musically downbeat and reflective, there are still moments of dancefloor transcendence – the bubbling synths that close pepper ‘Flowers On The Ground’; the snappy 808s of ‘Dusty’.
 
The album closes with ‘Red Lights’, a song based around a vocal sample that breaks new ground for TENDER. “It’s the first time we thought: we don’t need to replace any part of that,” Cobb says, with samples on their songs usually serving only as a snippet or a background noise.
 
It’s these types of gradual change in the writing and production of the songs that keep TENDER’s feet on the ground throughout ‘Flux’, set against the significantly larger and more wild personal changes that they’re writing about. It’s an album that pushes them subtly but strongly forwards towards exciting new horizons. “It still sounds like us,” Cullen concludes, “but it feels fresh. It feels like a whole new thing.”
 
Will Richards

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