Tegan and Sara, 'Heartthrob' (Reprise)

8
Heartthrob
SPIN Essentials
Release Date: January 29, 2013
Label: Reprise

by Jon Young

Coming out can be scary, especially when the faithful have graced your band with years of emotional and financial support, and may have trouble handling surprises that require a complete reorientation. But here goes: Tegan and Sara are pop stars.

The prospect of alienating their devoted fans with Heartthrob's synth-driven dance-floor gems must have been especially daunting for the pair, though they've never shied away from confrontation — the Canadian twin-sister act has long been comfortably open regarding their sexual orientation, for example. But their seventh album reveals the always-appealing Quins to be something other than your typical indie-rock mainstays, a stifling role they've arguably grown too comfortable with lately. Instead, they've largely ditched the guitars and cast their lot with slick mainstream hooks. Fortunately, they're quite good at it.

Anyone who's paid careful attention all along won't be totally surprised. For the last decade-plus, Tegan and Sara have been inching toward greater accessibility, from their early days as folksy Lilith Fair disciples through an era of electrification that ultimately resulted in 2007's The Con and 2009's Sainthood, both jangly, attractive albums featuring more elaborate production input from the esteemed Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie. (Perhaps the title of their second album — This Business of Art — offered a clue to future crossover strategies way back when.)

Bright, busy, and unapologetically direct, Heartthrob nonetheless makes everything Tegan and Sara did before seem perversely obscure. It's produced mostly by Greg Kurstin, whose résumé boasts marquee names from Kelly Clarkson to Ke$ha, though on earlier, more eccentric collaborations with Lily Allen (and in his own duo, The Bird and the Bee, with Inara George), he began to perfect the art of balancing striking idiosyncrasies with commercial concerns, a valuable skill in great supply here. The album's electro trappings may feel odd at first, but that sensation quickly fades thanks to the smooth, inviting textures — the Quins never sound like anyone but themselves. Whether sharing close harmonies or trading lead vocals, the sisters retain the engaging conversational style that values down-to-earth expressiveness over showy theatrics.

"Closer," the almost-perfect single that opens the album, breathlessly captures the giddy anticipation of physical contact, serving up a crazy cocktail of desire and hope as galloping beats and blippy synths heighten the sense of wide-eyed excitement. The soaring "Love They Say," with its charmingly naïve declaration ("You don't need to wonder if love will make us stronger / There's nothing love can't do") serves as a sequel, evoking the moment when all the wishing and hoping lead to a happy connection.

But mostly, what love can do is wreak psychic havoc. Heartthrob insightfully studies the messy aftermath of relationships, showing the wistful longing or bitter disappointment unleashed when everything implodes. The estranged, unreliable lovers who populate these songs qualify as classic bad choices, selfishly taking without bothering to give back. The gloomy "I Was a Fool" confronts a partner who "disappeared for weeks to pout," asking, "How long did you think I'd last?"; the peppy "I Couldn't Be Your Friend" is a toxic kiss-off, revealing a wild-eyed edge that's weirdly unsettling, as if the speaker was about to hurl a lamp across the room.

For flaming, deranged drama, however, there's no topping "Now I'm All Messed Up," a masterpiece of controlled tension that starts slowly with morose observations like, "Why won't you just comfort me?" before erupting into full-blast melodrama, with tortured voices exclaiming, "Go / Please stay!" in a furious tug-of-war. In less-artful hands, these could be tacky histrionics, but here, Tegan and Sara make them simply gripping. Contradicting the notion that romance has to end in a horror show, the delicate "Shock to Your System" offers tender comfort to the bearer of a lonely heart, saying gently, "You must rely on love once in a while," despite the overwhelming anguish portrayed so convincingly elsewhere.

Though Tegan has sometimes been viewed as the more mainstream writer, with Sara providing the quirkier tunes, Heartthrob — which references both romantic obsession and the sisters' potential to spark intense adulation (a status they seem to rebel against on "I'm Not Your Hero") — feels like the product of a single impassioned voice more than ever before. Liberated from the stylistic baggage of their previous albums, the Quins deliver something close to pure intoxicating emotion, granting themselves the freedom to go anywhere they want next time. Country? Funk? Stay tuned.

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