When they were young, Tanlines made a couple EPs and an album that, at the time and still today, sum up a specific place and time. In their case, it was Brooklyn in 2012; but it was also the sound of at least half a dozen middle-class urban enclaves around the world, where, for a brief moment, straight white dudes got it up and started dancing. Tanlines did it with rare efficiency. It was good fun, which is harder than it sounds, and they made it sound easy.

And then time passed, which, if you’re lucky, it tends to do. Their next album sounded like more of the same, only less. They flailed a bit, soundtracking Lena Dunham’s therapy session and covering “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” They seemed to give it up.

This winter, they returned with “Outer Banks,” a song about failing to launch that itself fails to ascend, stuck in a mid-tempo shuffle that, despite a glittering bridge, isn’t likely to get anyone onto a dancefloor. Tanlines’ youthful glow has gone gray. This is mid-life crisis music. Lead songwriter and singer Eric Emm made some announcements: He’d moved to Connecticut during the hiatus and continued to make music in his basement. Longtime bandmate Jesse Cohen had stayed in the city, hosting musicians like Perfume Genius and Waxahatchee on his No Effects podcast, and finally reunited with Emm to record what became The Big Mess.

Another single followed “Outer Banks,” less catchy and more of a character study. But who’s the dude playing blues-y guitar licks in “Burns Effect” and why are we paying attention to him? “I get surreal sometimes,” he croons, without evidence. “It cuts like a knife.” Men making fun of self-important men (a timeless pastime) doesn’t happen enough anymore, but it’s not happening enough in “Burns Effect,” either. The target is blurry and the satire is as flaccid as the groove.

Emm had said that he wrote The Big Mess while thinking about “introspective masculinity.” Those hoping for, say, Lindsey Buckingham’s unnerving odes to creeps will find some of his clinquant guitar tones but little of his brutal psychology. Bruce Springsteen’s manly nostalgia-as-humblebrag is another touchstone, particularly the golden-hour dustups of his Tunnel of Love period. But mostly, these songs don’t interrogate their subjects. They empathize without explanation. “New Reality” chugs along amiably: “I just can’t disguise what I feel inside,” Emm declares. “I’m just trying to be me.” What’s stopping him? The narrator of “Arm’s Length Away” complains about the sensory overload of modern life, with its “electric motor cars” and “limited this and that,” then throws it all away for the pleasures of small-town life. “I got there and I looked around,” he sings. With admirable nerve, he takes on indie rock’s masterpiece of alienation, asking himself, “How did I get here?” A tambourine rattles, some echoes carefully bounce around the stereo field. “Well,” he says, finally, “I don’t mind at all.”

As an album, The Big Mess isn’t really declarative, or sizable, or wrecked. It aims for something complicated and settles for complacency: a working definition of modern masculinity. If Tanlines once sounded effortless, now little sounds like it’s worth the effort. The title track features rumbling drums by John McEntire of Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, who knows how to plumb the depths of surfaces that seem initially placid; longtime National collaborator Peter Katis conjures some melodrama at the mixing desk. The song swells, fades. Emm keeps saying there was a big mess but doesn’t say what it was.

The album’s best track shakes off the vague nostalgia. “Clouds” floats soft melodies atop a tale of characters who are convincing in their specificity. Like an upstate pair of Dorian Grays, they live with a portrait that could tell them who they are—could make them strip, could make them fuck, could even maybe make them dance. Emm doesn’t confirm if any of this actually happens, but here ambiguity is a sexy possibility. There’s a great percussive detail that sounds like two corduroy’d thighs rubbing together. Guitar and synth licks melt like ice. Finally some drama: The couple “rise out of the clouds/shaking in the sun,” caught up in natural forces larger than themselves. In a brief moment, Tanlines rediscover their inner glow.

All products featured on Pitchfork are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Tanlines: The Big Mess