[9 August 2007]
The Con, by Tegan and Sara Quin, is very, very good. To be more precise, it is one of the best albums so far of 2007 and one of the best recent pop releases.
This is Tegan and Sara’s fifth album, and their most fully realized and developed work to date. It is a far cry from the bare folk-rock of the duo’s early work. The now 26-year-old twins play guitar and provide vocals on every track, and are accompanied by a pickup team of musicians: they are joined by Jason McGerr (of Death Cab for Cutie) at the set, Hunter Burgan (of AFI) on bass for Tegan’s tracks, Matt Sharp (of The Rentals) on bass for Sara’s tracks, and Ted Gowans and Kaki King on guitar.
After hearing the album’s single, “The Con”, one would expect it to be a highlight or standout of the album. Instead, it is what a single should be: a catchy, addictive gem meant to entice listeners toward an album full of them. The Con is short and sweet, clocking in at 36 minutes with no song over four minutes long, and several less than two. But its brevity is welcome, and contributes to the album’s charm. It’s a testament to Tegan and Sara’s talent that they are able to pack so much motion, energy, and meaning into just a few minutes of music. Tegan and Sara worked with producer Chris Walla, of Death Cab For Cutie, and Sara said that they focused on “keeping the songs as close to the demos as possible”. In general, the songs are indeed kept simple. The album is not absent of synths and effects, but it never relies on mere production alone. The excitement of The Con comes, instead of from loops and distortion, from earnest emotion and the versatile voices of the Quin sisters.
The hooks are here, without doubt, but no song is dripping with them. Instead, the melodies are subtle, but you’ll find yourself unable to remove them from your head later on. Sometimes it is musical lines that catch the listener’s ear, for example the immediately catchy guitar under energetic vocals on “Hop a Plane”. Other times, it is the lyrics that are unforgettable, as Sara sings on “Back in Your Head”, “I’m not unfaithful, but I’ll stray.”
Each song is more than pop hooks, however. It is the finer details of Tegan and Sara’s craft that make this disc so rewarding of multiple listens. The women’s keen rhythmic sensibility, more than anything else, elevates these tracks from merely enjoyable to an album worth obsessing over. “Nineteen” is momentous and churning, powered by McGerr on drums, and refuses to succumb to a typical rock groove. “Are You Ten Years Ago”, a piece in the vein of the electro-pop of Stars, is halting, as the girls slightly displace repeated lyrics. “Relief Next to Me” starts out sparsely, but gradually adds spurts of guitar and drums to find its way to a surprisingly powerful ending.
Critics and writers tend to pounce on the obvious angles about artists, and they love to speculate on what seemingly makes Tegan and Sara Quin different than other female artists around them: they are lesbians. But it is absurd to dwell on this point, as if it should be the focus of a record. Ultimately The Con stands as a valuable reminder that pop music can be transcendent, affecting us in ways we never imagined, regardless of any factors besides the music itself.
The Con is not perfect, but perfection is not the goal. At once urgent, remorseful, and delicate, this record is astonishingly evocative. The overwhelming feeling seems to be one of longing. A sense of anxiousness pervades these tracks, as if the women are looking for something they never really find—in that regard, it is somewhat bittersweet. Each song is written by either Tegan or Sara, and it is obvious that they both cared very much about each of these songs: on “Call It Off”, they sing, “Maybe I would’ve been something you’d be good at / Maybe you would’ve been something I’d be good at.” On paper, a notion like this seems trite. In the midst of a gorgeous and simple closing track, it is heartbreaking.
Tegan and Sara reported that “Dark Come Soon” is their favorite cut of the album, and it is easy to see why. This melancholy song is representative of the tragic beauty of the entire disc. Beautiful, as they sing, “Hold out for the ones you know will love you,” but also tragic in the following line, “Hide out from the ones you know will love you too.”
In an interview, Tegan said of the album title, “Is this really all just a con? Having a career, buying a house, getting married—do any of these things really give us comfort?” Perhaps Tegan is correct in suspecting that life is nothing but a con. But it is in this fake, frightening world that music as beautiful as Tegan and Sara’s plays a very important role: it provides comfort, letting us know there are others who feel the same as we do.