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Tegan & Sara Revitalize Their Sound With Pop Influences

For The Heights

Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 22:01

Anybody that has been following Tegan and Sara throughout their 15-year recording career would be surprised by their latest release, Heartthrob, not for the commitment with which the two sisters reinvent their sound, but for the integrity with which they break top-40 turf. The 7th studio album surely represents the biggest shock to their stage presence since the introduction of bass and drums, but T&S’ musical identity doesn’t suffer from additional production.

On “Goodbye, Goodbye,” vulnerable Tegan is as confidential as ever, Sara is just the right mix of repression and angst, and when the two are together—damn, it’s synthetic, unadulterated bliss. Remember that middle school girlfriend with the Hot Topic wardrobe and the shrine to Gerard Way in her closet? She’d love this song too, but T&S’ genius takes a retrospective approach to what some might write off as “tween nip.” When the harmonies collide in “I Was a Fool,” it is the dueling voices of heartbreak coming into synchronicity—it is the voices in the head of anybody at a disconnect with love finding their way to peace.

Most songs clock in at around three minutes, amounting to a series of short, gorgeous melodies and brief glimpses into a love-battered mind. The songs do sometimes bleed into each other, which wouldn’t be a problem in a concept album if they followed looser structures. Listening to the CD front to back is kind of like following a sin(x) graph, oscillating between intense, pregnant verses and the collision of striking hooks. Then again, perhaps this is just another display of Tegan and Sara’s understanding of genre. Pop albums are no longer a linear experience, and if we’re meant to pick and choose these songs every time we plug in, there are too many winners on Heartthrob to write similarity off as laziness.

The jump to pop does come with its drawbacks—the lyrical depth boasted so confidently in their earlier work was substituted for airy, dance simplicity. But T&S have always been bold about performing the emotion that most musicians only allude to, and they manage to take their fans towards Passion Pit complexity rather than to mindless Bieber-land. Echoes of “please stay” temper the sonic optimism on “Now I’m All Messed Up,” and who hasn’t lost somebody and wondered “whose life you’re making worthwhile?”

Perhaps Heartthrob’s greatest triumph is its role as an oasis of female independence in a genre that fetishizes starlets into doe-eyed schoolgirls, sex-addicts, or “liberated” druggies (I wasn’t going to mention any names, but those would be Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Ke$ha, in that order). Sure, it’s a romance album. Tegan and Sara are screaming out into the lovelorn abyss—that’s what they do. Sure, too, their move to breakup pop will undoubtedly attract the generation of tweens looking for something to express their vague sexuality now that Twilight has ended. But the album goes out on a high note with “Shock to Your System,” and Heartthrob is consistently less guilt and more pleasure.

Careful with the word “sellout.” T&S have managed to avoid a common pop faux pas—the lyrics dictate the delivery, not the other way around. The voices are breathy, wistful to demonstrate weakness—steady, aggressive notes capture the strength that seems to win out in a battle for self-acceptance. Tegan and Sara are great female role models in an objectifying industry. Their music is fragile yet daring, and their chart-friendly release succeeds in being that which pop should be, and avoiding what it shouldn’t.

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