There are longtime Tegan And Sara fans who jumped off the bandwagon when the duo released 2013’s Heartthrob, their last album. I see these people online; they’re out there. For all I know, they’re a vast chunk of the duo’s old fanbase. For these fans, Tegan And Sara abandoned their confessional-punk roots for shallow, generic pop music, losing an essential part of themselves in a sad quest for mass acceptance. I don’t understand these people. Heartthrob is, to my ears, a vast leap beyond anything the duo had done before. Their old records had grace and power and melodic sophistication. They had songs. But the way the band showcased those songs was through a deeply safe take on rock music — vaguely glossy, vaguely organic, vaguely everything. Heartthrob took all that vagueness and made it sharp and hard. Tegan And Sara figured out that glimmering ’80s roller-disco synths showed those songs in their best possible light, and they made everything click.
Heartthrob scanned as something immediate, but it wasn’t, not really. Those songs took time to sink in all the way, to completely resonate the way they eventually would. The first few times I heard it, it sounded like a pretty good pop album, and that was all. (The week it came out, I gave Album Of The Week to Bleeding Rainbow’s Yeah Right. That’s a good album, but I don’t understand myself sometimes.) But the songs stuck around. They stayed in my head. They resonated. Really, there was nothing generic about the kind of pop music the duo embraced on that album. At the time, nothing sounded like that. These days, a whole lot does. That bright, sugary, melodic retro wave has taken over vast swaths of pop radio, and Heartthrob is an acknowledged influence on an album as huge as Taylor Swift’s 1989.
For the new Love You To Death, they’ve gone even bigger and brighter and bolder. This is a sharp, concise, focused pop album. There’s no bloat, which makes it a rare beast today. At 10 songs and 31 minutes, it’s closer to, say, Duran Duran’s Rio or the Cars’ self-titled album than it is to the new Ariana Grande. The sonics are all sharp and clean, and producer Greg Kurstin, who also worked on Heartthrob, knows just what sounds to use to highlight all those hooks; his work here has me ready to forgive him for being the guy from Geggy Tah. (As someone who was in high school when “Whoever You Are” was out, this is no small concession.) Even the stripped-down songs on Love You To Death just gleam. “100x” might be a piano-only ballad, but that piano comes slathered in some expensive, effective effects, as are the sisters’ voices.
Fundamentally, though, Tegan And Sara are still writing the same sorts of songs as they were 10 or 15 years ago. The melodies and harmonies haven’t changed over the years, even if the production and instrumentation are totally and completely different. If they were playing these songs on guitars, any of them could’ve fit in just fine on So Jealous. If anything, they’re more sophisticated lyrically than they’ve ever been. The songs on Love You To Death are all about adult relationships, about the intricacies involved in those relationships. These aren’t just love songs or breakup songs. “That Girl” is about looking at yourself, realizing you’re stuck in a pattern that you don’t like. “U-Turn” is about admitting fault, realizing that you’re taking someone for granted, sniping and starting fights, and knowing that you’re going to have to completely rewrite your role in the relationship if you want it to survive. On “Dying To Know,” they’re holding onto their phone, waiting for a text from an ex, feeling entitled to something. And on “100x,” they’re ripping off the Band-Aid, realizing they have to stop hinting at leaving someone, that they need to just go ahead and do it already.
It takes a rare skill to express feelings that layered in any sort of song. But to do it in these direct, incandescent pop songs must be unbelievably difficult. Tegan And Sara find ways to deliver those lyrics in as few words as possible, then arrange those lyrics into huge skywriting hooks. On top of that, they’ve started to make it clear that they’re singing about women, about the complications sometimes involved in same-sex relationships. I’d like to think we’re at a point in our history where that’s just not a big deal, but, on some level, it still is. “Boyfriend” is the first single of a major pop album, and it’s about convincing a girlfriend to publicly acknowledge that the two of you are together. That’s a great thing. It matters. And it doesn’t stop the song from working as a straight-up pop jam. My 3-year-old son can and will sing along with it.
There’s a lot of great pop music out in the world. And there are a lot of finely observed, carefully written songs about the intricacies of adult relationships. There are not, however, a whole lot of great, carefully written pop songs about the intricacies of adult relationships. Love You To Death has 10 of them, and it has absolutely nothing else. And whether or not you were a fan of Tegan And Sara a decade ago, it’s worth celebrating.
Love You To Death is out 6/3 on Warner Bros.
Other albums of note out this week:
• William Tyler’s gorgeous instrumental Americana journey Modern Country.
• Fear Of Men’s atmospheric, synthy indie-pop opus Fall Forever.
• Steve Gunn’s lovely proggy ramble Eyes On The Line.
• The Kills’ icy rock return Ash & Ice.
• Mourn’s sharp, serrated sophomore album Ha, Ha, He.
• Classixx’ sparkling, guest-heavy electro-popper Faraway Reach.
• Paul Simon’s spirited, inquisitive Stranger To Stranger.
• Slowdive offshoot Minor Victories’ self-titled debut.
• Sonic Youth outgrowth KINO KIMINO’s squalling debut Bait Is For Sissies.
• Yucky Duster’s sunny self-titled DIY indie-pop debut.
• Horrors/Rachel Zeffira side project Cat’s Eyes’ grandly gothic Treasure House.
• Amber Arcades’ swirling debut Fading Lines.
• Moonface and Siinai’s full-length team-up My Best Human Face.
• Whitney’s shaggy, jangly debut Light Upon The Lake.
• Charge It To The Game’s underground rap fuck-around Urban Hall Of Fame.
• Cough’s roiling sludge-rocker Still They Pray.
• Psychic Ills’ churning psych-rocker Inner Journey Out.
• Swarming Branch’s oblique, ’70s-style Surreal Number.
• And The Kids’ convoluted DIY rocker Friends Share Lovers.
• Erin Tobey’s sharp, emotive Middlemaze.
• ALA.NI’s somber, torchy You & I.
• Virus’ dreamy experimental black metaller Memento Collider.
• Nico Yaryan’s catchy studio-rock debut What A Tease.
• Melvins’ bass-heavy lark Basses Loaded.
• Spray Paints’ Aussie avant-punker Feel The Clamps.
• Hippie superstar duo the Claypool Lennon Delirium’s wiggy debut Monolith Of Phobos.
• Fiery Furnaces/Sebadoh side project Saqqara Mastabas’ Libras.
• The Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping soundtrack.
• The folk-heavy benefit compilation Refugee.
• Elvis Depressedly’s double EP Holo Pleasures / California Dreamin’.
• The Strokes’ Future Present Past EP.
• Speedy Ortiz’s Foiled Again EP.
• Kalispell’s Printer’s Son EP.
• Candlemass’ Death Thy Lover EP.
• Karen Meat’s On The Couch EP.
• Madeline Kenney’s Signals EP.
• Nick Leng’s Drivers EP.