The logo accompanying Tanlines’ 2012 debut album Mixed Emotions was a winking sad-face emoji—cute, even profound, in its dead-simple representation of two seemingly conflicting ideas at the same time. Eleven years later, Eric Emm and Jesse Cohen are still making escapist, joyful-sounding songs about sad, insular moments and melancholy songs about catharsis and joy, but the inherent contradictions have only grown.
Tanlines are indie-rock lifers turned reasonable, happy middle-aged fathers of two, figuring out their place in a chaotic culture and industry that can no longer command their full attention. They are emblematic of a particular time and place that doesn’t really exist anymore, yet here they are existing, and thriving, in 2023.
Which leads to maybe the most intriguing new contradiction: Tanlines is an established duo of longtime friends and collaborators, but Tanlines is also kind of a solo project. The Big Mess came together when Emm and his family moved from Brooklyn to rural Connecticut, while Cohen launched a marketing career and a successful podcast and stayed in the city. Emm continued writing songs—hundreds of them—through all the weirdness of the past few years, but he wasn’t exactly sure who he was writing them for. “I spent years figuring out in my mind, ‘What is my musical life going to look like?’” he says. “I just kept writing.”
Cohen gave Emm his blessing to continue Tanlines, even if his own contributions would be limited due to his own non-musical obligations.“I’m like, ‘Whatever you can do to keep this thing going, do it,’” Cohen says. “Eric stopped going to school as a teenager to make music—it’s in his blood, where it’s more in my brain.” And with that, Tanlines was reborn.
“That opened a new door in my mind,” says Emm. “I was like, ‘Oh, wait a second—I have this studio in my basement. I can go record drums whenever I want. That’s the whole point of this.’”
It wasn’t until January 2022 that Emm felt he had a body of work that made sense as a Tanlines album, and the good people at Merge Records enthusiastically agreed. Cohen spent ten days with Emm at his Connecticut studio, along with unofficial third Tanline Patrick Ford. This was tied together with a sleek final mix from Peter Katis (The National, Interpol) at his famed Tarquin Studios, resulting in a clear vision of what Emm’s musical life was going to look like: The Big Mess.
Songs like “Outer Banks,” “Unreal,” and “Speed” could slide next to anything on their previous records, with Emm’s smooth baritone undergirded by keyboards and electronic drums. But the first sounds on The Big Mess are the title track’s coiled guitars and thumping drums, building into the kind of outsize, choral rock anthem artists like Tanlines were almost a reaction to. It is warm and nostalgic, and Cohen likens a lot of the prevailing mood to “a sepia filter on a digital photo.”
“We were pretty intentional about making this the first song on the album, underlining the way that this is a new phase of the band,” Cohen says. “There’s a lot more reflection here, for Eric at least, on his past and his career as an artist, than we would have done before when we were banging out electronic pop tunes with sad melodies on top.”
“It’s in my DNA,” Emm says, “to always be questioning everything. I’m not really a nostalgic person, but there were times when these songs were coming together when I found myself reflecting or even reckoning with some of my past and turning them into teaching moments.”
Those teaching moments have created a Tanlines that has not only evolved sonically, but thematically, as well. The Big Mess is concerned with what Emm calls “introspective masculinity.” As a father and a man, what concerned Emm was a thoughtful approach to the relationship that exists between fathers and sons, between men, and the expectations society places upon them.
The moody, scintillating “Burns Effect” serves as one of the biggest pushes forward for the Tanlines sound, and for Emm as a lyricist. He says that the song is “deep and dark and dangerous, but in a fun way. It’s one of the more personal tracks on the album where this ungrounded part of my personality surfaces, but with an over-the-top machismo, almost an ironic character.”
Other tracks like “New Reality” and closer “The Age of Innocence” are also demonstrably guitar-forward in ways that wouldn’t seem obvious for Tanlines (despite Emm’s pedigree in austere avant-garde math-rock outfits Storm & Stress and Don Caballero), but Emm is less sure The Big Mess is a total departure. “I’m trying to make these absolutely simple things,” he says. “I think of these songs as Rothko paintings: They’re big and they’re bold and they’re seemingly straightforward, but they have a lot of depth and they engage with you and make you feel something.”