Tegan and Sara – Heartthrob
Warner Bros. 2013
At the heart of it all – the cheesy, shimmery synths, dolled up with a glorious major-label sheen, the dance-floor bass wallops, the nostalgic grooves that call to mind bad movies and worse outfits – Heartthrob is still the same old Tegan and Sara fans have always known. The touchstones are now more Breakfast Club and Madonna than power chords and Metric, the production slicker, shinier, the cover a colorful, stylized wallpaper than an ominous tome or a blood-red rose, yet there they are on opener “Closer,” still dreaming of “how to get you underneath me.” There’s no way around it: Heartthrob finds Tegan and Sara finally bowing down at the altar of pop that they had been paying occasional respects to ever since So Jealous, yet those hooky melodies and incandescent synths only serve to cleverly disguise those exposed emotions, sharp lyrics and distinct, powerful voices. Heartthrob still bites as incisively, forgives as breathlessly as the Tegan and Sara of old, and that’s a wonderful realization after the culture shock of hearing the twins translated through producer Greg Kurstin’s (the Bird and the Bee) arena-geared sound. The drums here punch along fearlessly, robotically, while the synths paint things in day-glo colors and with fluorescent clarity, and signposts generally not associated with the sisters’ punk reputation – Pink, Robyn, Cyndi Lauper, et. al. – show up with increasing regularity. Yet where this carefully manicured sound can sometimes come off as prepackaged, Tegan and Sara present an interesting dichotomy between the glossy production Kurstin serves up and the strong emotional content the duo’s lyrics and vocal performances reveal. It makes Heartthrob a fine example of what pop music can accomplish when one doesn’t lose sight of the feelings that led to it.
Not to say that Kurstin’s work here is mere window dressing for Tegan and Sara’s typically adroit observations. “Drove Me Wild” is a vintage new-wave hit that very well may be the finest pop song of 2013, the kind of unassuming hook that burrows around and refuses to leave your head, “Back In Your Head” with those fantastically sleazy synths replacing that insistent keyboard line. “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” pairs a herky-jerky rhythm with a straightforward chorus as plain and simple in its pop ambitions as the venomous lyrics that propel it angrily forward. The best songs are those that combine Kurstin’s direct, anthemic style with Tegan and Sara’s unhinged emotion and insistent vocal melodies, be in it the manic, thrilling chorus of “Closer” or the defiant, bleak synth-pop kiss-off “Shock to Your System,” which closes out Heartthrob in suitably dramatic fashion. Even when the album crosses the line from glamorous to tawdry, as on the big-hair-and-leg-warmers nightmare of “I Was A Fool,” Tegan and Sara never sound like they are running through the motions. Heartthrob doesn’t intend to shack up with the electro-pop fad for a quick cash-in, but instead transforms their sound wholesale into something that sounds like a natural evolution.
Occasionally, the bright lights and mammoth, sparkling sounds detract from the flow of the record, a ceaseless dance party broken up only by tempo shifts. It’s a blueprint that comes off as more than a little uniform, especially in regards to some of the band’s loopier records (2007’s The Con comes to mind). Indeed, Heartthrob nears exhaustion by the time the one-two depressive punch of “Now I’m All Messed Up” and “Shock to Your System” close things up, a regretful hangover to a torrid night of affairs. Yet songs as pristinely produced and playfully constructed as “Now I’m All Messed Up” and “I’m Not A Hero” are not usually this immediate, this visceral; painfully detailed recreations of romantic entanglements gone right and wrong, often as quick one way as the other. For all its narrow musical sensibilities, Heartthrob never marginalizes its heart. “I’ve never walked a party line / doesn’t mean that I was never afraid / I’m not your hero / but that doesn’t mean we’re not one in the same,” the sisters sing, and it’s as telling a line about their musical ethos as it is a satisfying statement about their own identities. As crushing as some of these songs are, Heartthrob never lets you feel the weight, but prefers to revel in emotions good or bad, most often while sweating everything out under a crystalline disco ball. You can’t ask much more from pop music than that.
Heartthrob, the highly anticipated follow-up to Sainthood, gives us Tegan and Sara in their superhero tights and capes, ready to conquer the pop universe, and the new outfits suit them just as well as their old-school jeans and T-shirts.