Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
For some reason this quote from the 2000 flick High Fidelity continues to pop into my head anytime I finish listening to Tegan and Sara’s latest album Heartthrob. Now, I’m not saying that this album makes me miserable (quite the opposite really). Rather, the reason I can’t shake that quote is because Heartthrob excels at disguising its darker lyrical content with bright, up-tempo electronica flourishes. And there are a lot of electronic touches throughout Heartthrob, as Tegan and Sara trade in their guitars for keys and synthesizers. This is a full-fledged pop album and that may be shocking to some. But make no mistake: Heartthrob is undoubtedly Tegan and Sara’s best album.
But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realize that the duo has been inching closer and closer to this type of sound over the course of the last few Tegan and Sara records (as well as their cameos on dance tracks from EDM artists Tiesto and Morgan Page). The band has been churning out three minute pop delicacies since So Jealous and on Heartthrob, they’ve perfected it. Honestly, I’ve been waiting for this change of pace in the duo’s music and I couldn’t be happier with how Heartthrob turned out. The twin sisters have pushed themselves creatively and musically, creating something truly special. The ten-track LP was co-produced by Greg Kurstin and Mike Elizondo (two producers who’ve worked with the likes of Ke$ha, Lily Allen, Sia, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, and Maroon 5), leading to a pristine and massive sounding record. Songs like “Drove Me Wild” and single “Closer” are perfect examples – both have huge, infectious choruses that are paced by a dizzying array of vibrant keys and buzzing synth. It was a no-brainer for the sisters to work with this production team, launching Tegan and Sara’s songwriting to new heights.
Despite all that, Heartthrob would just be another pop album if it was all style with no substance. Thankfully, Tegan and Sara supply plenty of it; Heartthrob contains some the duo’s most personal lyrical content yet. And even though they are both in healthy relationships, that didn’t stop the sisters from going back and deconstructing past and current relationships, divulging specific fears and insecurities. The stop-and-go “Goodbye, Goodbye” details getting out of a dead-end relationship over a ridiculously catchy hook (“You never really knew me/never ever/never ever saw me/saw me like they did./You never really loved me/never really/never really loved me/loved me like they did”). “How Come You Don’t Want Me” is an exercise in heartbreak, while drums and bass pulsate throughout the poignant power ballad “Now I’m All Messed Up” as Sara intensely exclaims, “Go if you want./ I can’t stop you.”
Heartthrob isn’t all desolation however. The aforementioned “Closer” retells those excited yet anxious moments of new love, while “Love They Say” is incredibly optimistic (and features some of the album’s rare guitar work). There are also songs of empowerment; moving on in life despite the crappiness that may be surrounding it. On the surface, ‘80s power jam “I Was A Fool” seems like another sad chapter but beneath it is a person who stuck through the rough patches of a relationship. There may not always be a happy ending, but the song shows a side of toughness and bravery of not running away at the first sign of trouble. The discordant closer “Shock To Your System” also relays a message of standing strong amongst bad times. An off-kilter drumbeat and simmering keys set the tone as Sara battles loneliness and insists on moving on (“You got a shock to your system/Pull yourself out of it/I know that shock to your system/Knocked your heart right out of sync”). These are bittersweet anthems and few groups do it better than Tegan and Sara.
So what came first, the music or the misery? Honestly, I don’t think it really matters when an album is this good. It’s a liberating album for the Quin sisters; Heartthrob isn’t an album that sugarcoats relationships, but it also doesn’t wallow in self-pity. There is a perfect balance present here, and its consistent up-tempo beat gives Tegan and Sara a different kind of liveliness than their previous albums. Heartthrob couldn’t be a more perfect title – the theme of being so in love with someone – almost obsessively – and not having that love reciprocated and dealing with that reality is constant throughout. It’s an infatuation; something many will encounter after hearing this record.