Here it is, Tegan & Sara’s much-talked about leap to… pop? Electronica? Club music? It seems like everywhere you’ve turned lately, people have been talking about how Tegan & Sara’s new album is going to be “different,” as if different means terrible. But these are people who like to gossip, or so-called fans who haven’t bothered to actually buy a Tegan & Sara album in years. Because, honestly, if you’ve been keeping up with Calgary, Canada’s often-praised twin sister duo then you would have seen this “different” album coming a mile away. After all, their last album, Sainthood, was a pop album in my book. Sure, it featured Tegan & Sara’s usual blend of guitars and keyboards, but the songs were more pop than indie at heart. (Listen to “Arrow” again if you don’t believe me.) And if that wasn’t enough of a sign, then there was the “Alligator” remix album they released shortly after Sainthood. Well over a dozen remixes of the track by the likes of Passion Pit, Ra Ra Riot and Morgan Page. Then there were the widely-circulated remixes that didn’t officially make the cut, like those by RAC and Doctor Rosen Rosen. If all of these names have one thing in common, it’s pop. Synthy electro-pop, to be specific. And synthy electro-pop is precisely what I’d call Tegan & Sara’s new album Heartthrob.
“All I want to get is, a little bit closer,” begins the album’s opening track, “Closer,” which nicely sets the tone for the rest of the record with its glimmering synth, electro flourishes and lyrics about love. Like most of the songs on the album, it was produced by Greg Kurstin, who’s worked with such big names as Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, Ke$ha and The Shins during recent years. But it’s his work with Lily Allen and Sia that most resembles the ornate sound he’s achieved on Heartthrob with Tegan & Sara. (Kurstin is also half of the duo The Bird & The Bee with Inara George and Heartthrob calls to mind their records as well.)
If you liked Goldfrapp’s last album, the ’80’s synth pop-inspired Head First, then you’re sure to love Heartthrob. While Tegan & Sara come from an indie/folk-pop/alternative background, Goldfrapp were coming from a dance and artsy pop background, but Heartthrob finds Tegan & Sara at the same place Goldfrapp were at when they made Head First. Both albums consist of syrupy sweet love songs with huge, radio-worthy choruses, though you get the impression that neither record was made in an attempt to get on the radio. In both cases, the albums feel like genuine art pop, made because they were, quite simply, the records that were in the artists hearts at the time they were making their albums. And Heartthrob easily owes as much to the ’80’s as Head First. For example, the melancholic “I Was A Fool” could have been a huge hit for Pat Benatar, Berlin or Bananarama back in the day. It’s sweet, sentimental and has a gorgeous melody that has much more to do with the heyday of ’80’s pop than anything that’s going on in pop today. Meanwhile, the anthemic “I’m Not Your Hero” owes an awful lot to The Cars, splitting the difference between “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” and “You Might Think.” And the confessional “Now I’m All Messed Up” owes a great debt to Madonna’s “Live To Tell,” which it seems to deliberately borrow the vocal melody from, at least during the verses. Mind you, I’m not calling Heartthrob unoriginal. I would say it’s quite the opposite. I just think the duo has done a fine job of wearing their influences on their sleeves. That said, their gift for writing songs about love and relationships, from infatuation to heartbreak, is wholly present here. Make no mistake about it — these are still classic Tegan & Sara songs at their core. Any of them could be performed with guitars and the duo’s traditional keyboards instead of synth and electro-beats. They could easily make an unplugged album of these songs. It would have been so easy for them to have made a record that sounded just like their past achievements. But, for the sake of remaining true artists, not nostalgia-freaks, they chose to grow and try something different instead. Something their true fans are likely to embrace. And for every one fan who doesn’t like Heartthrob they’re sure to gain three new fans who do.