Three years after their unlikely ascent into synthpop stardom, Tegan and Sara continue down the same path with minor shifts to their thematic compass.
Comparisons can’t be avoided: Tegan and Sara’s latest album Love You to Death is a clear continuation of the path they charted three years ago on their unlikely ascent into retro synthpop splendor, Heartthrob. This isn’t debatable, it was calculated; the duo even returned to producer Greg Kurstin to actualize the same effects reached on that album. Now, because of Heartthrob’s surprising success in both critical and commercial circles, Love You to Death aims to be as similar as possible to its predecessor (although it may contain just as many, more tenuous differences), resulting in an audience that will undoubtedly be unable to escape listening to this new effort with the analytical ears of someone deeply attached to its sister album.
This truth was evident from the outset with the band’s latest single “Boyfriend”, which signalled both an unassailable devotion to the sugary, neon aesthetics of Heartthrob and a more minor shift in the band’s thematic compass. To that last point, the generic universality of Heartthrob’s major hit “Closer” stands in stark contrast with the intimate personal themes uncovered throughout Love You to Death’s big set pieces such as “Boyfriend”.
The detached sentimentality of a hook like, “All I want to know is / Can you come a little closer,” is not mirrored by that of the band’s new single, inspired by Sara Quin’s real-life relationship with a woman who had never been with another girl before. Its refrain -- “You treat me like your boyfriend / And trust me like a very best friend / You kiss me like your boyfriend / You call me up like you want your best friend” -- still has the widely relatable tilt of a song like “Closer”, but it’s encased in raw, private detail and a narrowed scope which lends it the realness that Tegan and Sara loyalists have always associated with them but went mostly unseen with Heartthrob’s removed formality. This creative arc finds Tegan and Sara becoming far more comfortable in a pop environment that’s still fairly unfamiliar to them, reverting back to their old motifs of confessional songwriting and stepping gently away from the broad messaging and warm comforts of convention that initially brought them there. Love You to Death indicates that Tegan and Sara know exactly where their new sound could use some refinement.
This is made clear even in the tone-setting of each record. Heartthrob begins with the driving, party-starting force of “Closer”, a celebration of the band’s proficient adaptation of pop style, whereas Love You to Death kicks off with “That Girl”, a piano-led, uptempo ballad with a deeply introspective, self-conscious slant (“When did I become that girl? / That girl I see”) that explores the psychological effects of romantic fatigue and the failure of personal judgment (“Sick and tired of things getting tough / Never gonna be enough”). Thematically, that’s a serious gulf. As even their titles indicate, Heartthrob is more concerned with the the joys and follies of naive, youthful love while Love You to Death aims deeper and darker, reflecting on the complications and the all-too-true realities of romantic passion, even as they operate in pretty much the same musical territory.
But despite remaining more-or-less beholden to the musical fabric laid out in Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara can’t help but take some misguided liberties with a sound that does Love You to Death’s sometimes dreary sensibility no favors. Much of the duo’s songwriting talents appear to have been fixed on the album’s many meteoric, arena-ready choruses with the rest of the songs relegated to making those set pieces seem even more massive when bookended with somewhat less expressive passages.
On “That Girl” and “Stop Desire”, the verse vocals are made as sonically monotonous as possible, allowing their melodic choruses to stand out that much more. “BWU” and “Hang On to the Night” sacrifice freshness and sentimentality in the verses so those qualities are more prominent when they finally arrive in the hooks. Even the album’s lone traditional ballad “100x” is memorable mostly for its musically upbeat refrain, the rest of the song acting merely as a means to that end.
Any avid listener of Heartthrob can tell you that one of that record’s great advantages is its consistency, and especially the fact that any section of any song -- verse, chorus, or bridge -- can easily get stuck in your head. On Love You to Death, Tegan and Sara have taken their ‘80s pop influence a step further and devoted themselves entirely to those monumental hooks at the unfortunate expense of the rest of the album. In a way, the heightened dynamics and repeated structural patterns reinforce the explosive emotional tension utilized throughout the album, but at the same time, it’s far less exciting than the broad ambition the band brought to Heartthrob, even if it does happen to be more meaningful on a personal level.
Despite these obligatory comparisons to their 2013 effort, though, Love You to Death is ultimately its own beast, one that finds Tegan and Sara working effectively with confessional songwriting and further developing their enthusiasm for synthpop’s visceral pleasures. The exercise of lining it up against the more well-rounded Heartthrob, while perhaps not ideal for objective appraisal, only helps make those strengths and weaknesses more pronounced.