Tegan And Sara’s ‘Heartthrob’: Album Review

Stephen Sears | January 29, 2013 5:30 am
Since Tegan And Sara released their debut album in 1999, the Canadian twins have been pleasingly hard to categorize. Are they indie? Pop? Folk? Over six albums, the duo gained a considerable following, but were never exactly chart-bound. Heartthrob (out today, ) could change all that. Recorded in Los Angeles with producers Greg Kurstin and Justin Meldal-Johnsen, among others, these ten songs play like a hits collection — or, at the very least, a tribute to the now-dying album format.

Clocking in at a tight 36 minutes, Heartthrob owes much of its sound to synth-heavy new wave, with an infusion of guitars. The pair recently told MTV the album is defined by “…pop in the very eighties sense: hooks, keyboards, lots of vocals.” Aside from monster choruses, Tegan and Sara deliver with their lyrics. What separates them from current radio pop is an uncanny ability to write about love (good and bad) while side-stepping the usual clichés.

“Closer,” which the sisters say is about the love-struck phase before a crush becomes physical, alternates between sweetness (“I won’t treat you like you’re typical” ) and utter horniness (“All I dream of lately is how to get you underneath me”). After a few banger choruses, the bridge builds into an explosion of shimmering vocals, simulating the sound of the daydream-filled crushes they’re singing about.

“Drove Me Wild,” written with Canadian remix duo Sultan & Ned Shepard, recalls the classic ’80s LA pop of bands like Missing Persons and Berlin, all synths and crunchy guitars — and like many of the songs on Heartthrob, there’s a twist. On first listen, “Drove Me Wild” is a frisky romance (“When I think of you… your face relaxed, your voice a whisper in my ear, it drives me wild”) before it becomes clear the foxy lover is withholding (“You put the breaks on us and it drove me wild”).

Heartthrob’s arena-ready sound suggests they are ready to fill big halls as headliners. The album’s heart beats — sorry, throbs — strongest on “I’m Not Your Hero,” a manifesto of self-determination. “I’m not their hero, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t brave,” they both sing on the anthemic chorus. [Note to the Quin sisters: Put that on a concert tee and we’ll buy it]

Tegan and Sara composed 80% of the album themselves. Most of the tracks feature a lyrical hook that sticks. At first listen, what sounds like a kiss-off (“What you are is lonely”) in album closer “Shock To Your System” reveals itself to be advice to a heartbroken friend. “You must rely on me once in a while to give you reason.”

The subtle “Love They Say” is pure optimism: “You don’t need to worry, this love will make us worthy. There’s nothing love can’t do.” The track, reminiscent of the Indigo Girls, highlights another element of Heartthrob: the way the vocal harmonies sweep over the songs. It’s the kind of album where you find yourself singing the backing bits as you drive your car.

If you’re used to the rougher indie version of Tegan And Sara, don’t sell this album short. It packs an emotional punch. “The blood doesn’t have to be fresh,” quipped Sara Quin recently about writing sad songs. With Heartthrob, she and her sister chronicle joy and heartbreak pushing against each other in a big, shiny pop world. It’s a welcome spark in the dead of winter.

The Best Song Isn’t The Single: Gwen Stefani’s make-up will run as she cries with jealousy over power ballad “I Was A Fool.” Whether you’re 32, like the Quins, or 16, it doesn’t take much to remember staring at the phone: “Do you remember I searched you out… Do you remember me as devout? How I prayed for your calls.”

Factoid: For every fan who complains that they’ve gone too pop, there are several new fans ready to pogo their way through Tegan And Sara’s live shows.

Full Disclosure: It’s only due to Tegan’s lip –err, chin? – piercing that we can tell which twin is which.

Rating: 4.5/5

Stephen Sears