Tegan & Sara are hitting Oz shores on Saturday 4th March, kicking off with Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras party, followed by a string of shows in Qld, SA, VIC and NSW. Head here for deets.
When Tegan & Sara arrived back on the scene in 2013 with Heartthrob things were different. The indie sound that had built them into cult heroes over their past six records had been replaced by a pop sheen. The choruses were bigger, the synths were more prominent and, best of all, they were the loosest they’ve ever been.
Pop is often tied to a feeling of being manufactured. It’s perceived as a consistent reach for a hit, with the person up-front simply there to sell a product that they have had very little to do with. Over the past five years in particular there’s been plenty to disprove that theory. Beyonce’s 2013 self-titled record and her most recent Lemonade established her as one of the biggest creative visionaries on the planet, Rihanna redefined what hits should sound like on her left-centre return ANTI and even The Weeknd dipped into the pop world without ditching his dark, drugged-up R&B sound. Heck, even Tame Impala are making pop music.
With that in mind it’s interesting to note that Tegan & Sara’s pop-turn Heartthrob was both their most commercially viable and critically acclaimed record to date. As it turned out, their emotion was best communicated by the supposed “fakest” genre in the books. After six albums of guitars, keys and layered off-pitch vocals, they polished what they had been doing for years and turned to a sound perfected by Swedish pop masters. Heartthrob drew on ‘80s pop to deliver huge choruses (I’m Not Your Hero), catchy hooks (How Come You Don’t Want Me) and powerful anthems (Goodbye Goodbye). There was a newfound ambition to the band where they weren’t afraid to go bigger even if that meant accidentally creating a radio hit.
Instead of being labelled as sell-outs as they potentially expected, they were heralded. Pitchfork praised them for avoiding “any old generic, radio-friendly collection,” Consequence Of Sound said their deliver had “never sounded more confident,” and Spin declared them, “liberated from the stylistic baggage of their previous albums.” What it confirmed more than anything is that this was always where Tegan & Sara were meant to be. Their lyrics of love and angst sit right in the pocket of ‘80s-leaning instrumentals, elevated by a sense of melodic freedom that allowed them to go bigger than ever.
It was a surprise when they made such a sudden stylistic change but looking back in hindsight, they have always been popstars. Walking With A Ghost, which is more than 12 years old now, harboured a melodic sweetness while So Jealous demonstrated early on that their voices are at their best when surrounded by a bed of synths. It really becomes apparent though listening back to their 2007 record The Con which holds some of their biggest anthems. Nineteen reads as a more delicate, raw version of Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone and Back In Your Head is as twee and addictive as anything Kate Nash or Lily Allen were doing then.
Alligator from 2009’s Sainthood was perhaps their most explicit venture into the world of pop. The melody and keys reached towards the dancefloor, only held back by the organic percussion that would have been ditched had they intended it for Heartthrob. It took them four years from there to deliver Heartthrob. They swapped producer Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie fame for Greg Kurstin who helped Lily Allen realise her commercial potential on It’s Not Me, It’s You and effortlessly edged Sia into the pop world on We Are Born.
Kurstin is excellent at connecting people with wider audiences without hiding their personalities. That was something that shone through on Heartthrob. Despite the fact that at least half the record was radio hit in waiting, you could tell Tegan & Sara were behind each one. The lyrics of love, lust and heartbreak were all still there and the quirky vocal stylings were also still there. It’s just they’d realised the best vehicle for their songwriting.
Three years later, they’ve returned with Love You To Death, another 10 song collection that sounds more like Heartthrob than it does any other Tegan & Sara record. It’s a pop record once again created with Kurstin but they’ve got even better at it. Boyfriend is the strongest lead single they’ve ever released and it’s also the most danceable. It’s even better that they’ve crafted a huge anthem out of something quite complex that one of them was experiencing in a relationship. Being “treated like a boyfriend” is not one of pop’s go-to subjects but it’s one that exemplifies just how excellent the pair have become at writing really personal but accessible tunes.
Their writing is strong throughout the record. They go deeper on subjects like on BWU where they’re talking about the fact that even though gay marriage is being legalised in countries around the world, maybe they actually don’t want to get married. That statement is delivered by a song that’s shiny, catchy and radio-friendly. They are challenging the capabilities of a pop song and winning.
It’s amazing how a certain production can make people think a song doesn’t have substance,” Sara said in an interview with FastCoCreate.
“Like, why is the new Radiohead record so cerebral and taken so seriously, and then with Taylor Swift and 1989, people just automatically assume it’s not as serious."
Glossy music doesn’t need to be bereft of a heart in the same way that music doesn’t need to be alternative to be taken seriously. There are several strong arguments on this record showing that pop music can be fun and serious. Tegan & Sara had to make that realisation themselves to arrive at the point they are now. They’ve created their best record - one that’s fun, emotional and personal all at the same. It’s unashamedly a pop record but one that takes pop’s accessibility and trashes all the other rules about what the genre should be seen as.
- Words by the interns' Sam Murphy
Tegan & Sara's Love You To Death is available now where all breakout pop records are sold and streamed!