One of the most impressive aspects about Tegan and Sara is their commitment in honing their craft in such a way as to make every new album that much better than the one preceding it. If you take a gander at their humble beginnings with albums like Under Feet Like Ours or This Business of Art, it’s astounding to see the level of growth in their musicianship and songwriting almost 15 years later. Arguably, the band of super cool twin lesbians didn’t achieve that that moment in the limelight until their 2004 semi-hit “Walking With a Ghost”—to be later covered by the White Stripes. And while So Jealous and The Con were both fairly good records, it was 2009’s Sainthood where they truly began to shine, and all that hard work and perseverance became crushingly apparent. Sainthood was, at the time, the best album that the duo had produced. Soon they were being eaten alive by super awesome DJ’s who wanted to harness their twin power by placing them front and center on some kick-ass dance pop tracks—the most popular of which was Tiesto’s “Feel It in My Bones”.
It was quite possibly this foray into electro pop collaborations that seeped into those hairdos, ultimately influencing the twins to produce a full out electro pop record. The result, not surprisingly, is the duo’s best album to date. Heartthrob is easily the most pop-oriented, head-bopping, non-stop, catchy-tune-after-catchy-tune, thrill ride they have ever produced. In an effort to gain a bigger audience—and I’m sorry, but any music act that wants to maintain a tiny cult following so as to not appear to be “selling out” are either fools or liars, or both—Tegan and Sara made a conscious effort to ride the wave of bigger sounding, brighter indie pop tunes that are slowly but surely ingratiating their way onto the tired radio waves. They broke free from their relative comfort zones and purposely let go of the control that has harnessed their signature sound to three equally talented producers—Greg Kurstin, Justin Meldal-Johnsen and Mike Elizondo. They essentially did what so many artists in the 10th year of their career refuse to do. They challenged themselves. They abandoned their tried and tested process and experimented with what they could do outside the box, so to speak. And for that fact alone, whether the experiment was a success or not, they should be applauded. Thankfully, for everyone involved, but especially the listener of this beautifully endearing record, it’s a wonderful success.
For the first time in their careers, these still incredibly young sisters decided to compound their songwriting abilities, weaving back and forth the strongest aspects of each other, where previously they had maintained a separated, yet unified, front. There used to be Tegan songs and Sara songs. Ultimately, Heartthrob is the first fully realized Tegan AND Sara album. And it pays off. The album begins with the magnificent “Closer”—epitomizing in the first few lines, the nexus of the album. When, either Tegan or Sara (I can never tell which is which) begin with “All I wanna get is / a little bit closer / All I wanna know is / Can you come a little closer? / Here comes the breath before we get / a little bit closer / Here comes the rush before we touch / come a little closer”, you know you’re in for a different kind of album that still feels, at its core, like a Tegan and Sara album, but is brimming with newer possibilities.
The album continues with “Goodbye, Goodbye”, which boasts one of the best choruses around. And by the time you realize that “Goodbye, Goodbye” is actually a horribly sad song, especially with lines like “You never really knew me / never ever / never ever saw me / saw me like they did / You never really loved me / never really / never really loved me / loved me like they did”, you’ll already be pulled in to their ‘80s throwbacks, and endearing harmonies, that you won’t really care that they essentially lied when they said they were writing a happier album. Happier, my ass! This is a sad record, but a beautiful record. Clocking in at just over a half-hour with a concise 10 songs, there isn’t a single instance where the duo overstays its welcome or repeats its tricks. Every track sounds like it could be a massively successful radio single, and while some pop albums suffer from being too catchy and accessible, ultimately making them boring, Heartthrob benefits from precise communication, and enough varied components to draw you in with each listen.
Additionally, the duo has managed to reel in their ethereal, poetic-sounding, nonsensical lyrics for a more coherent narrative structure. Lyrics have probably been the most difficult aspect to overcome in Tegan and Sara’s repertoire. Tracks like “Hell” (with lines like “Four blocks / run and hide / don’t walk alone at night / Cityscapes / cities change before they die / Four blocks / I should mention in a song / If I wanted / get along and change you / Who doesn’t wanna change this?) or “The Con”, or any track prior to Sainthood, it’s anyone’s guess what these songs are actually about. Mired in seemingly meaningful clumps of words said together, Tegan and Sara have always had a difficult time with narrative and being concise in their music—thus shifting focus to the music and melodic structure of their songs. With Heartthrob it sounds like the sisters have made a conscious effort to be more understandable, while maintaining some aspects of their signature poetic repetitious style. They’ve grown up in almost every aspect of music production.
With Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara have stepped out on that metaphorical cliff. The outcome could result in very few new listeners and an alienation of their existing fanbase who clamour for more of Tegan and Sara’s signature rock/pop style. Or, what is more likely, the album will be embraced by more people than ever, and those already rabid die-hard Tegan and Sara fans will take the girls up on their request to get a little bit closer. Either way, the girls can be proud that their efforts have produced the best record of their career, and quite possibly, one of the best records of the year. The girls have officially thrown their hat in the already gorged pop music scene, and other acts should be forewarned—this is an act that can duke it out with the best of them.
// Notes from the Road
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