From the very start of “Runaway,” the opening track on Varsity’s third album Fine Forever, it’s clear that the Chicago quintet has morphed into something new. While still working in indie-pop tradition that recalls groups like Fleetwood Mac, Rilo Kiley, and Alvvays, the band has taken the recognizable pieces of their sound and reached across sonic boundaries to reframe the genre in their own image.
Varsity have built an impressive catalog in a relatively short period of time, and with their 2015 self-titled debut, 2018’s Parallel Person, and a run of singles collected on 2019’s The Basement Takes all under their belt, the band sought a new approach for their third full-length. To record Fine Forever, vocalist/keyboardist Stef Smith, guitarists Dylan Weschler and Patrick Stanton, bassist Paul Stolz, and drummer Jake Stolz, put their trust in producer Ben Lumsdaine as if he were the band’s sixth member. “Ben really helped free our minds and let us focus on playing music,” says bassist Paul Stolz, and the proof is in the final product. Between Lumsdaine’s encouragement and their own willingness to leave behind their music comfort zones, Varsity sound just as confident on the album’s crisp guitar pop (the rousing title track or shimmering jangle of “Shaking Hands”) as they do on its more exploratory cuts (the sprawling “Memphis Group” or the instrumental interlude “Surfin’ Milwaukee”). “Going into it, we just knew ourselves so much better as a band and as a working, collaborative unit than we ever have before. We played these songs so much, they were just in our veins,” says Weschler, who notes that they’d spent nearly three years working on album closer “Sicko World” until it felt totally right. It’s that collective effort that allows Fine Forever to feel deeply considered while still remaining totally and unpredictably human.
That humanity extends to Fine Forever‘s lyrics, where Smith built a series of vignettes that read like a short story collection about the modern world. “I used to be a documentary filmmaker, so narrative nonfiction is sort-of my view of the world,” says Smith. “These songs are all different stories, and I relate to those stories, but I’m not the protagonist.” Throughout Fine Forever, Varsity digs deep into what it means to be a person, without shying away from the ugliness that comes along with it. It’s never prescriptive, but rather textural and evocative, with the band’s music and Smith’s lyrics often leaning on one another. “Memphis Group” sees Smith exploring the Italian design group’s rise and fall, while the dynamic arrangement mirrors the shifting story. “Stef is really good at listening to the nuances of the song and writing to that, understanding the song deeply enough to make the lyrics fit with the emotional arc of the music,” says Stolz. It’s something that Smith is conscious of, allowing the band to rehearse the songs to the point where the music brings the lyrics right out of her. The delicate strut in “Reason To Run” is a prime example, the song describes someone trying to muster the courage to leave a negative situation, and Smith notes that its music already told the narrative before she even put pen to paper.
From the title on down, Fine Forever is a pointed declaration of intent. It sees Varsity unified around their vision and achieving a sound they’d always been searching for. It’s a record that defies simple categorizations, taking full advantage of the wide range of sounds and styles that can fall under the umbrella of “indie pop,” all while managing to maintain a welcoming accessibility. “I love when people say they don’t know what genre we are,” says Smith, and the deeper you get into Fine Forever, it’s easy to see why.