If you’d told me that I’d be more likely to hear the new Tegan and Sara record in a dance club than on the local college radio station, I would probably assume that the world had turned on its axis (and be very pleased). But, after dropping the needle on “Closer”, the opening track of the Calgary duo’s newest release, Heartthrob, you will be instantly transported to hip-shaking, danceable pop beats more reminiscent of a Belinda Carlisle or Kelly Clarkson track than the tightly constructed no-frills indie-folk rock that T&S have made their calling card for over a decade. How will this play out with the T&S die-hards? Difficult to say.
There will be some who may use the oft-touted indie slur “sellout” or perhaps utter the more emphatically dramatic phrase “they are dead to me” like some counter-culture-Mafioso. I imagine the old school T&S fanbase will be at crossroads like that faced by the Cat Power loyalists who watched as Chan Marshall transitioned from her similarly styled indie-cult heart-on-sleeve, raw emotionalism towards a musical palette that moved from Memphis Blues on The Greatest to electro-eclecticism on her recent Sun. But, in my opinion, the Cat Power transformation was stellar and something similar may be at work on the new avenues explored by Tegan and Sara on Heartthrob.
…I never walked the party line. – Tegan and Sara on “I’m Not Your Hero”
When an artist departs from the formula that has worked and endeared them to a loyal set of fans, emotions and reaction are varied. Often a loyal fan might wonder “Why? I loved you just the way you were!” Such a response is completely understandable. I can remember thinking or invoking similar phrases at number stages of my music listening adolescence. Part of us wants to hold to certain things in our life, to possess an unchanging constant, and timeless ideal; such is youth. But, the reality of life just like is art is that things change and evolve. Musicians are no exception. At a certain point, they just want to play a different set of chords or pull in a new set of influences. After the rude awakenings of maturity, I learned there is nothing wrong with growing and visiting new terrain. In fact, it is what makes great artists great. What if Dylan had never plugged in? Okay, this album isn’t on that level but, still, it bears remembering that sometimes you have to alienate your past to grow. The only real issues for me are (1) is the new work any good? and/or (2) judged on its terms (as opposed to our external expectations), does it work? For example, if a director has made her mark directing serious dramas and decided to direct a comedy, it really isn’t fair to say “the new film just isn’t serious enough like her earlier work”. Duh, it’s a comedy by definition the dramatic content changes. Everyone is entitled to like or dislike the end product, but did she succeed at working within the comedic convention? For me, the latter is the far more important consideration than whether it fits my/our taste, for which there is no accounting .
After listening almost incessantly to Heartthrob for the last week (after hearing “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” and email/texting countless friends about my musical crush over this over-the-top, almost Top 40 pop song with all the frills and production values of said “genre”), I can say I really, really like this record and will probably be bopping to it for the foreseeable future. In all fairness to the sisters Quin, they have unabashedly declared their intent to make a more mainstream, pop-friendly record to help expand their musical footprint. Therefore, the question is whether they’ve succeeded at working within this pop convention? Again, I have to say yes and succeeded in a way few can and do. But, the best part about all of this external transformation is that the core of what Tegan and Sara have always done remains intact. Despite the bubble gum veneer, these songs are as biting, heartfelt, poignant, and earnestness as anything on The Con or Sainthood plus there are those gorgeous complimentary harmonies scattered throughout (another T&S trademark). Sure, there aren’t tracks as raw, aggressive and (youthfully) self-righteous as “The Con, “Nineteen”, and “Like O, Like H” but Tegan and Sara have grown and matured in their songcraft and perspective, just like the rest of us. Could they have written “How Come You Don’t Want Me” on The Con? Who knows, but doubtful, there is the sense of a more world-weary/traveled quality. Still, the narrative of this song stings and wounds with the same straightforward emotional directness as what came before, especially for anyone who has been on either side of the song’s central question: “why don’t you love me now like you use to?”. (I think I’m not alone in having lots of (unpleasant) memories swell up while listening to this song.) Or, take the nihilistic lover’s abandon of “Now I’m All Messed Up” with its musical evocation of TLC’s “Waterfalls”. But, don’t fret this is not all songs about heartache and loss, just listen to the joyous exuberance of “Closer” with its celebration of new love (or perhaps amour fou) or the empowering sense of separation and distance on “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend”, which might replace Rilo Kiley‘s “Breakin’ Up” on most upbeat break-up tracks of all time and offers a clever compliment to Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together”.
So, what are you waiting for, an invitation? Okay…
Listen to Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob here (and get ready to dance and immerse yourself in love addled ruminations).
an unapologetic lover of a good pop song: a.a.
* for the record The Con is still my favorite T&S record. If you haven’t listened, go here.
** For the older set, the album reminds me of Everything But the Girl’s Amplified Heart, their “breakthrough” album in part due to the club-friendly “Missing” and subsequent remixes. Curiously enough, that was another duo known for emotionally packed, densely layered, and more stripped down music.