Heartthrob is the new album by Tegan & Sara, an aptly named endeavor for a band whose strongest songs have always dealt with matters of the heart. It’s the seventh album from sisters Tegan and Sara Quin, yet their first to deal exclusively in dance-centric electro-pop with huge beats and bass. It is a substantial change of directions, yet foreseeable to anyone who picked up on their collaborations with the likes of Tiesto and David Guetta in recent years, or the albums of remixes released in the past few years for their both “Alligator” and “Back in Your Head”. Released January 29, Heartthrob was recorded with L.A. pop producer Greg Kurstin (P!nk, Kelly Clarkson, Ke$ha), and it finds the duo shooting for straight-up pop stardom.
The story of Tegan and Sara Quin barely needs explaining, but carries extra weight in the context of this new album. The 32-year-old twins from Canada have been releasing records of folk-inflicted guitar-pop since high school, developing a mythology of sorts amongst their cult fanbase. At 18, Tegan & Sara toured by car and Greyhound bus, playing songs from their first few demo tapes. After their first proper album, Under Feet Like Ours, they were picked up by Neil Young’s label, Vapor Records for their sophomore album, The Business Of Art. (With a title like that, its no wonder they’ve spent a sizable amount of time throughout their career commenting on and attempting to maneuver the intricacies of the crumbling old-school music industry.)
With the success of their third and fourth albums, If It Was You and So Jealous — which contain some of the best songs in the band’s catalog — Tegan & Sara began to develop the obsessive teenage fanbase they are now known for. It’s understandable that the band would feel conflicted at this point in their career: Artistically, they’re ready to move on from alt-folk confessionals; but when the kids like what you’re doing so much, how can you change?
“I’ve always struggled more with the idea that we are being held to a certain type of sound or certain type of style,” Sara told the Fader in an interview last year. They’ve gone through various phases, but with their new album they’re testing the limits of that fanbase. They’ve noted that on this new album, they wanted the songs to sound like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. Tegan has even said the album’s opening track, “Closer,” was inspired by mid-’90s dance music like Erasure and Ace Of Base.
To some it may feel like a drastic change, but to an extent, Tegan & Sara have always seemed like pop stars. Pop songs are supposed to be highly listenable, with big hooks and mass appeal, and those qualities are all over So Jealous and If It Was You, as well as the the album that followed those, The Con. The backbone of Tegan & Sara songs, whether made with guitars or synths, has always been their huge, hyper-emotional choruses and themes of heartbreak, longing, distance, emotional trauma, and recovery. Tegan & Sara were in an interesting position of having entered the music world during a time of flux, so their pop-stardom was acquired in a new way; over the years they’ve reached the masses via LiveJournal communities, message boards, and obsessive Tumblrs, rather than top-40 radio. Now they seem to be going for the latter.
Tegan & Sara haven’t been quiet about the fact that a big goal of the new sound is to sell more records and reach a new fanbase. This album is purposefully more commercial sounding; they recently talked to Rolling Stone about “leaving the indie world behind.” I’m accustomed to scoff at this kind of business-mindedness, but find myself feeling differently about Tegan & Sara, whose genuineness has always been a huge part of their appeal.
“Real pop music,” Sara told Racket Magazine in 2008, “the kind of stuff that’s making kajillions of dollars, and the culture, it kind of encompasses hip-hop now and the entire Britney Spears thing and even the power pop-punk thing … it’s nothing against the people who are buying it. There is just something about that whole culture that drives me crazy … There’s nothing wrong with making music that people want to listen to, that sticks in your head, but there’s got to be some heart and soul behind it. There’s something about mainstream that just doesn’t feel like it has any heart behind it.”
Heartthrob might sound like a radio-ready dance album to newcomers, but knowing the band’s deep-rooted history in heartfelt folk-tinged ballads makes it a different kind of pop record for the ethos-first kind of music listener. Tegan and Sara are shooting for the top-40 stars now, but they have successfully translated the emotional weight and humanity of their prior work to a mainstream-accessible electro-pop album. Not to mention, in a plastic-pop world where even the most indie-sounding top-40 pop-stars are the result of meticulous major-label round-tabling, the idea of the mainstream airwaves being taken over by self-made queer feminists who have been working their asses off for the past 15 years is pretty huge. It’s heartening.
10. “City Girl” (from If It Was You, 2002)
If It Was You is the fourth Tegan & Sara album, released in August of 2002, when the Quin sisters were barely of legal drinking age in the US. It includes some of their tightest angst-ridden guitar-pop, but this track, the fourth on the album, is one that always sticks: a song about transience, moving away from home, leaving someone for the city. It’s full of the types of one-liners (“You pack your bags you say/ I love you but I can not stay”) that were surely scribbled in the margins of high-school notebooks everywhere that year, and will be for years to come.
9. “Alligator” (from Sainthood, 2009)
Sainthood is the Tegan & Sara’s sixth album, released in October 2009, and the band describes it as being a record about “obsession with romantic ideals” — a sentiment that might be applied to any of their records, really. Sainthood contains the first songs the band ever wrote collectively, and was produced by Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla. “Alligator” was the stickiest song on the collection, eventually getting special treatment on the Alligator remix LP, which included remixes by Passion Pit, Toro y Moi, Ra Ra Riot, and more.
8. “The Con” (from The Con, 2007)
The Con is the fifth album by Tegan & Sara, featuring guest musicians including Hunter Burgan of AFI on Tegan’s songs, Matt Sharp formerly of Weezer on Sara’s songs, along with Jason McGerr of Death Cab For Cutie, and Kaki King. It sees the twins at their darkest and most heartbroken, so appropriately it is also arguably the best of their discography. The title track is a stand-out.
7. “Living Room” (from If It Was You, 2002)
In 2011 while reviewing the Newport Folk Festival, I talked about the ways Tegan & Sara fans have their own sort of folklore about them, pointing out all of the recurring themes I’d observed at the band’s shows in various cities and countries. One thing that seems consistent everywhere is the way this song, “Living Room,” always seems to rally the loudest sing-along: “I hope I never figure out who broke your heart/ and if I do/ baby if I do …”
6. “You Wouldn’t Like Me” (from So Jealous, 2004)
I have a distinct memory of the first time I heard this song: as a 10th grader in my mother’s Volvo in 2004 on a Saturday afternoon, after purchasing the CD at Tower Records on Long Island. I bought the CD after reading a review of it in a magazine (I think it was Teen Vogue). This was the only album I ever bought at Tower Records based on a review in a magazine. When I first heard Tegan & Sara, I was exiting my emo phase; from the first seconds of this song, it maintained enough of that genre’s emotional lyricism but felt more sophisticated and mature, which I’m sure is what has continued to draw in teen fans over the years. Oddly enough, years later, while living in Dublin, I interviewed Tegan & Sara at the last remaining Tower Records in the world after they played an in-store set, and we talked about the crumbling music industry. “This has become a really blue-collar industry, which Sara and I aren’t afraid of, we love to work hard, but [on tour] you have moments where you’re just like, ugh,” Tegan told me. “Because you can’t really take a break, or else how do you make money?”
5. “I Know I Know I Know” (from So Jealous, 2004)
“Walking With A Ghost” is perhaps the most popular song on So Jealous, brought to a mass audience after it was covered by the White Stripes. “Walking” is a great song, but there’s even stronger songwriting to be fond here, on an album that also aesthetically incorporated little bits of new-wave and punk influences. “I Know I Know I Know” is one of Tegan & Sara’s most infectious melodies, a song that sums up the complicated emotions of distance that are tied up in the life of a touring 20-something musician.
4. “Where Does The Good Go” (from So Jealous, 2004)
I had a realization the other day while listening to this song: At my current age of 23, the songs on So Jealous are actually more relatable than they were at age 14. I’m sure I’m not the only 23-year-old longtime Tegan & Sara fan having this realization this year. Tegan & Sara were around my age when they wrote these songs, so it makes sense. It is interesting to think about all of the fans of this band, for whom these songs will continuously take on new life as they age from young teens through their twenties and beyond.
3. “Now I’m All Messed Up” (from Heartthrob, 2013)
As discussed above, Tegan & Sara’s new album is unlike anything they’ve ever recorded. “Now I’m All Messed Up” is a microcosmic look at why this new direction works so well: The track was originally written as a piano ballad in the style of many of the band’s previous records, brought to new heights by the production, huge drums, bass, and synths. “I wanted it to be really bare bones,” says Sara in a video the duo made explaining the making of the track. “But when we got into the studio with Greg Kurstin, really quickly he started turning it into what I would refer to it now as a power ballad.” Tegan adds: “It’s kind of empowered. You’re screaming at someone to go but it’s very obvious that you want them to stay.” There are many excellent songs on Heartthrob, but “Now” sums up the album’s essential mood: the paradox of a sad love song that simultaneously sounds crushing and empowering.
2. “Back In Your Head” (from The Con, 2007)
The Con deals a lot with both long-distance longing and breakup; “Back In Your Head” not only contains one of the hugest hooks in the band’s entire discography, but also might be one of the best breakup songs of all time, a song full of tension with a recurring earworm of a chorus: “I just want back in your head/ I just want back in your head.” The song was recorded in 2007 with Sara on guitar, Chris Walla on guitars/keyboard/organ, and Jason McGerr on drums. Eventually a “Back In Your Head” remixes collection with released with version by Tiesto, Josh Harris, and others.
1. “Nineteen” (from The Con, 2007)
Writing a list of this sort for a band like Tegan & Sara is complicated. Their songs attach themselves to certain people and places in your mind. “Nineteen” is one of those deeply embedded songs for me, one that I had the great luck of happening upon when I was a 19-year-old myself, dealing with things like distance and heartbreak, as 19-year-olds do. Tegan & Sara’s early songs were stripped down to just guitars and voices with lyrics that cut straight through. Somehow even with fairly big-sounding drums and guitars, “Nineteen” maintains a lot of the band’s minimalism, yet manages to play out like a distillation of everything that is excellent and addictive about them. It’s a guitar-pop ballad about falling in love with someone you barely know, with an addictive teenage angst and energy about it: “I feel you in my heart and I don’t even know you/ and now we’re saying bye, bye, bye.”