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Tegan & Sara 'Heartthrob'

Tegan & Sara
Heartthrob
(Warner)

 

Tegan & Sara are pop artists. Whether flourishing on the fringes or crashing the mainstream; whether armed with guitars or keyboards, they’re devoted to the craft of the pop song. They value a thunderous chorus and other structural sureties, but they also attack the worn-faded form with rare hunger and smarts. They pen straightforward anthems yet anchor them with a depth you usually don’t get after such bracing immediacy. Heartthrob may be their seventh album, but the Quin twins quickly prove as gripped as ever by the never-ending challenges of music and life.

It’s fun too, though. It’d be easy to just call this their synth-pop album and leave it at that – they’ve name-checked Ace of Bass and Erasure, and embraced keys and drum programming alongside their New Wave-y guitar-pop mechanics. But again, what seems like vacuous punchiness at first brush feels more and more emotionally committed as you get to know the songs. Again, that’s Tegan & Sara’s trick: writing, playing, singing and touring radio-friendly pop as if their lives depended on it.

Feeding into that desperation is the album title, as well as songs like the closing ‘Shock to the System’: emotional anxieties spill over into physical manifestations, into bodily trauma. “Does your body shake when you get around me?” goes a line on the total roller-rink jam ‘I Couldn’t Be Your Friend’. The heart here isn’t some handy, inert symbol: it’s a living, throbbing thing that’s liable to betray you any second now.

And so these songs are at once empowering and vulnerable. And yeah, they don’t exactly shy away from romantic platitudes (“There’s nothing love can’t do”; “Go if you want/I can’t stop you”). But they dole those out evenly with stubborn reality checks (‘I’m Not Your Hero’) and openly sex-minded lyrics (“All you think of lately is getting underneath me”). There’s a lot here for one’s inner teenager, from us-against-the-world themes to public wound-tending. It’s custom-built for the various stages of heartbreak but doesn’t strictly wallow: for every torch-y ballad (‘I Was a Fool’, the ’90s Top 40-style ‘Now I’m All Messed Up’) there are all-consuming choruses that usually come rushing in after like 20 seconds. The Cyndi Lauper-meets-Strokes ‘Goodbye, Goodbye’ is geyser-like at the chorus, pushing everything up and out.

For all the mainstream slickness, it’s worth remembering that the Quins write their own songs. Even the three co-writes here don’t stray from the path: ‘Closer’, penned with producer Greg Kurstin, is typically powerhouse, while the only seeming hand of Montreal electronic duo Sultan & Ned Shepard on ‘Drove Me Wild’ is a brief synth solo and ticking drum machine. A team-up with Jack Antonoff of fun., ‘How Come You Don’t Want Me’ again frontloads itself with the chorus and doesn’t look back.

This is open-heart, bedroom intimacy boosted to stadium proportions. It can feel like a formula, but there’s no doubt Tegan & Sara live – and own – every word of it.

Doug Wallen

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