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Review: Tegan and Sara Write the Pop Album They’ve Earned on ‘Love You to Death’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: June 3, 2016
Label: Warner Bros.

Tegan and Sara are pop purveyors now — there’s no debating that. Not only did the Sisters Quin prove their remarkable chops on 2013’s synth glitterbomb Heartthrob, but one could theorize that they’ve been practicing for the Big Game on every previous record in some shape or form, whether that’s 2004’s mostly acoustic breakout So Jealous (2004), the more experimental and piano-based pop of The Con (2007), or the touch of Paramore-punk rush on Sainthood (2009). Heartthrob reached the sugar-coated apex of one of the many Everests they’ve conquered, but the sublime new Love You to Death manages to stay there.

The one place the Canadian twins’ songwriting rarely ventured was into the specificity afforded by pronouns. Personal as every Tegan and Sara album would get, and as outspoken about their sexuality as they’ve been in the press, they’ve historically taken an almost famously generalist approach. That’s no big deal — Tegan and Sara have every right to be as forthcoming (or not) as they choose when it comes to publicizing their respective relationships to queer culture. (“You feel sometimes there’s a burden there, and sometimes you feel proud and other times you feel like everybody is mad at you because you’re not saying the things they would say,” Sara told the Dallas Voice in 2013.)

Their songs’ lack of disclosing “he,” “she,” or otherwise never prevented hordes of fans from clamoring to their shows, and probably helped their all-accepting image even more. But Love You to Death is the first to directly refer to women as their objects of affection. It reflects positively on pop’s growing diversity — and this group’s strength at battling a patriarchal industry — that they’ve simultaneously grown more famous while reaching an even greater level of comfort in the details they choose to reveal.

Only two songs on Love You to Death directly point out same-sex relationships: The low-lit roller-skate jam “Boyfriend” deals with the confusion Sara experienced when she met her now-girlfriend, who was at the time involved with a man and had not yet explored anything romantic with a woman. “I don’t wanna be your secret anymore,” they conclude, a line imbued with the frustration of being unable to express oneself fully.

Then there’s “B/W/U,” a drum-pad confessional that eschews the traditional trappings of a “white wedding,” (“I don’t need a ring to prove that you’re worthy”) and also notes how “All the girls I loved before / Told me they signed up for more.” This self-realization from the duo who once sang 2007’s “I Was Married” (about Sara’s onetime partnership with the band’s creative director, Emy Storey) is startling but welcome. Now, almost ten years later, Tegan and Sara are plainspoken when they sing about what’s romantically right for them (“Keep your name / You can keep your dates / You can keep your faith”) without sacrificing the tell-all teases by which they enthralled a cult following.

All over their eighth album, the Quins continue to demonstrate what makes them such fine songwriters. Even as Love You to Death is the shiniest record the ladies have released yet (largely thanks to Sia/Adele co-conspirator Greg Kurstin), its lyrics are substantially rawer and dig further under the skin than ever before. Heartthrob painted an emotional spectrum with a broad brush (desire on “Closer,” abandonment on “I Was a Fool,” isolation on “Shock to Your System”), but the language on Love You to Death is tenderly nuanced.

Quivering opener “That Girl” finds the duo declaring, “Nobody hurts you like me” in unison — one of those masterful in-jokes that only twins can pull off — to cap off a song exploring the loss of identity within a damaged partnership. “You were someone I loved, then you were no one at all,” they sing on the piano-led “100x.” And the EDM-skimming “Dying to Know” demands contact from an ex (“Hit me back / ‘Cause you owe me that”), unveiling the ominous side of Tegan and Sara’s usually mixed mindsets: nostalgia with a bitter edge.

Just as their lexicon has become more unflinching, the band’s latest taps into newer, more effervescent realms of upbeat expression musically as well; it’s not a Heartthrob clone. Where a few years ago Tegan and Sara found new audiences by way of alternative-pop scores, new tracks like “That Girl,” “Faint of Heart,” and “U-Turn” focus on up-to-date rhythms, frequently accented by modern-retro synths that could’ve originated from a record by either Duran Duran or Carly Rae Jepsen. If Heartthrob was a test to see if T&S could fill stadiums and hold their own against Taylor Swift (who even asked co-writer Jack Antonoff to give 1989 a Heartthrob-esque sound) or Katy Perry, then Love You to Death considers it passed with flying colors.