Canadian sisters Tegan and Sara have been making music professionally since they were 19, and so by their 7th studio album, this perhaps seems like old hat to them. To the extent that the pair continues to churn out power-pop gold, it is business as usual, but Heartthrob is noticably distinct from its predecessors.
The album I’m most familiar with, So Jealous, featured comparatively sparse instrumentation, and the lighter soundscape was the perfect environment for more intimate moments. Even at its most gutsy, the tracks were no-nonsense and got right to the point.
On 2009’s Sainthood they further steeped themselves in new wave trappings, while still maintaining the characteristic punch and grit of their vocals. This trend is extended even further with the Katy Perry-influenced (inspired?!) Heartthrob.
It’s one of the most refined pop records I’ve ever heard. Though the Quinn sisters are decidedly outside the teenage period of their own lives, they still effortlessly tap right into the issues at the heart of the trials and tribulations of young people. And as adult songwriters, they are completely licensed to sensualize their music for a little flavor. Opening track ‘Closer’ features the humorous confession:
All you think of lately / is getting underneath me
All I dream of lately / is how to get you underneath me
This works quite well because it isn’t delivered in some pouty voice, meant to titilate or arouse- it’s a fun turn of phrase because the assertion is something the assert-er is apparently just as guilty of. The nuance and precise humor of it derives largely from the tone and delivery, a subtlety few pop songs can boast.
And the melodies! It will never happen, but the earlier parts of the record are built to be put through countless plays on the radio well into the summer. We could pick almost anything in the first act of the album to make this point, but as an exemplar I’ve chosen ‘Drove Me Wild‘:
Light, bouncing vocals tracks over slightly fuzzy guitars and a few layers of synth keyboards make for a perfect driving-with-the-windows-down tune. Truly, these ladies know their craft.
But to do that for an entire record is almost too easy, and we are treated to a change of tone in the second act. ‘How Come You Don’t Want Me Now?’ is a biting, accusatory song lamenting a love had and inexplicably lost. It’s still pristine synth-pop, but with a bit of an undertow now.
The album continues with the excellent ‘I Couldn’t Be Your Friend‘, which turns the tables. Here, the voice of the song is more akin to the antagonist of one of these unplesant situations, admitting freely,
Now you wanna cry / call me a cheater
Left you to die / though I did neither
I thought that it would / that it would be best for me
Maybe its just my world-weary self looking for another well-traveled soul, but the lyrics here read like someone doing the dirty work of breaking up for good. Somehow the battery of pitch-modulated ‘oh-oh-oh-oh-oh’s make it easier to bear, though.
This all leads us to the closing track, ‘Shock to Your System’. It’s easily the darkest moment of the album, what with its big Depeche Mode tones opening the song. Another honest assessment of a bad situation, the refrain of ‘what you are / what you are / what you are is lonely’ is more haunting that hurtful. It’s a plain statement of fact, rather than a lament.
All of this to say that Heartthrob is a pop record built on heart rather than fluff. The sisters Quinn offer you substance and style. No need to compromise. First great record of 2013.