Thursday, January 31, 2013

Send All Those Villains After Me

Let's be frank up-front: Tegan and Sara wanted to make a Robyn album. They weren't fucking around, either - they didn't just throw a couple electro-pop numbers onto a standard issue T+S album, no. They recorded an entire album of Robyn-esque pop. There are stompers and synth ballads, even a tiny hint of dubstep poking in around the edges, and all delivered with complete sincerity. If it seems strange or uncharacteristic or even alienating on first listen for long-time fans, well, it's at the very least definitely not a lark.

For anyone paying attention, however, it's not exactly a surprise. They've been dipping their toes into dance music and pop for a while now - they've done collaborations with Tiësto, Morgan Page, and David Guetta - hardly the most ground-breaking panel of producers, but definitely the right places to go if you're interested in making accessible electronic pop music. I would not be surprised if they really did make a dubstep record at some point in the near future, or at least got some remixes by whichever available dubstep folks are signed to another Warner affiliate.

And lest you think I'm being too hard on them - yeah, well, Tiësto is cheesy as fuck and Morgan Page isn't likely to be releasing his DJ Kicks anytime soon, but they also released a pretty eclectic remix album for "Alligator" that was almost twice as long as the album that "Alligator" came from. That one had remixes by Four Tet and Toro Y Moi, so, you know, hipster cred intact.

The point being: if they wanted to make some kind of cheesy crossover move, one song with Tiësto would have been enough. Two songs is a trend. Three is a commitment. The only way a whole album of new wave synthpop would be a surprise is if you hadn't been paying attention. They released an acoustic live album a year and change ago, Get Along, that almost seems in hindsight like a kind of peace offering for the fans they knew might be somewhat baffled by their electro turn. There are enough who would be completely satisfied if the duo simply remade The Con every two years until the sun burns out, no doubt about it. That album represents the apex of a certain type of hermetically-sealed hyper-emotive guitar-based songwriting experience, an album that feels less like a collection of songs and more like an immersion. In hindsight it wasn't an experience that could be easily replicated: there just aren't that many artists who have proven successful at maintaining that level of intimacy for very long without it seeming either hackneyed or desperate - it's worth pointing out that Fiona Apple averages a new album about every five years and even that seems pushing it in regards to her mental well-being.

Sainthood is still my favorite even though I recognize that, coming on the heels of The Con, it wasn't universally adored. It's a bigger album in almost every respect - bigger rock sound, fiercer guitar, sleeker production. It doesn't have the craggy edges that The Con or So Jealous do. What it does have is, I think, the strongest songwriting of their career to date, paired with some genuinely ambitious arrangements. It might not be as completely naked in places as The Con, but I'd still put "The Ocean" and "Someday" up against "Dark Come Soon" any day of the week. It's a resolutely old-fashioned rock album, in that it contains a very of different sounds and moods spread across the length of thirteen tracks, with great care expended in the placement of each mood in relation to the others. I've read some reviews that criticized Sainthood for being schizoid in execution, but I don't see a problem in the fact that Sara's songs sound different than Tegan's, anymore than I had a problem with Andre and Big Boi's clashing aesthetics coming together to form something greater than the sum of their individual parts. It works. It's part of the package.

It works partly because even though they write different songs they still sound like they're singing to each other. They're twins, so on the most basic level their voices sound very similar, and that creates a baseline for their sound that never wavers even when their individual contributions sound very disparate. If you listen for a little while you get a feel for their differences - Sara is the nasal one, Tegan is the bratty one, which is kind of a stupid way of describing them but it's as good a way I can think of to explain it. But one of the reasons why it's so easy to fall so deeply in love with the duo is that they have a way of singing that makes it sound like they're talking directly to you, confessing and cajoling the listener directly. The fact that they're already singing to each other makes it that much easier to imagine they're singing to you, too.

Heartthrob is in many respects a complete break. For one thing, despite the fact that Tegan & Sara have always been a guitar group, there's barely any guitar on this album. You can hear a few chords here and there in the background, and one song ("Love They Say") actually does have some strummed acoustic guitar in the front of the mix, but really, that's about it. For another, if previous albums have ably defined the two sisters' individual songwriting voices, Heartthrob does a good job effacing these differences. Historically, a Tegan song sounded like a Tegan song and a Sara song sounded like a Sara song, and once you figured this out it wasn't hard to tell them apart. This album doesn't work like that. All the songs sound like Tegan & Sara, but not very many of them sound like Tegan or Sara, if that makes sense.

What this means, in practice, is that the twins have largely abandoned what has historically been one of their greatest strengths - the variety that comes from putting two very different kinds of songwriters in close proximity and forcing them to share space. This is a dance-pop album, and all the songs are dance pop songs - the fast songs are club hits, the slow songs are synth ballads, but the overall effect is very much of a piece. Even though none of the songs really miss individually (OK, maybe "How Come You Don't Want Me" is a bit of a dud), as a whole the album seems samey. I'm going to qualify that statement with the caveat that I've only had the album for two days and even though I've already listened to it a dozen times I've still got a few dozen more spins before I can feel completely at home - but just in terms of first impressions, the album doesn't seem anywhere near as diverse as any of their previous long players.

Part of the problem (if we can even call it a problem) might have to do with the fact that they're playing somewhat against type. As much as they might want to make synthpop music, they don't yet have the chops to pull off anything near as ambitious in this genre as they were able to do with guitar-based rock on their previous albums. There's nothing that comes close to the challenging arrangements on The Con or the second half of Sainthood. A lot of the songs sound very much of a piece, so there aren't many moments where the music is able to sneak up behind and fully catch your attention, like on (for instance) "Like O, Like H" or "Sentimental Tune."

One of the reasons the album sounds the way it does is that they made a conscious decision to sublimate some of their own songwriting tendencies under the guiding hand of producer Greg Kurstin, credited as producer on eight out of ten of the album's songs. Kurstin usually works with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, P!nk and Ke$ha, so it's obvious Tegan & Sara wanted something very specific from working with him. I think they got what they were looking for - and that's not a dig. The album works best when they manage to figure out how to make Tegan & Sara work in the context of the pop genre. If it works better in some places than others, it still works pretty well throughout. What they've lost on this album is that sense of intimacy with the listener: they've scrubbed some of their idiosyncrasies in the pursuit of making as broad a statement as possible.

But I would like to stress, in case that sounds overly harsh, that the album does succeed as often as not. If they wanted their own "Dancing On My Own," they succeeded with "Closer." It would be impossible to oversell this song: making pop songs that work this effortlessly is fucking hard, or everyone would be doing it all the time. It's the best song on the album by a country mile, which isn't necessarily a knock on the other good songs because it's just that good. "Goodbye, Goodbye" is pretty good, too, built off a bit of the DNA from Madonna's "Lucky Star" - likewise with "I Was A Fool" which borrows a melody line from (of all things) Heart's "How Do I Get You Alone." "Drove Me Wild" and "I Could Be Your Friend" work pretty well, too - nowhere near as aggressive as "Closer" but fairly catchy nonetheless. Of all the album's ballads I think "Love They Say" would be the strongest, except for some uncharacteristically banal lyrics ("Love they say that it is blind / They say it all the time"). It's hardly a deal-breaker, but all the same it is slightly disconcerting, considering that clever, resolutely un-cliched lyrics have always been the duo's specific métier. There aren't many of Sara's trademark tongue-twisters, I'll say that.

All of which points to the bottom line: Tegan & Sara stepped out of their comfort zone for the express purpose of recording a big-hearted, accessible electro-pop album that sounds only a little like anything they've ever recorded under their own names. Where the album succeeds it succeeds because it manages to maintain a delicate balance between the demands of being a Tegan & Sara album and being a straight pop album - where it fails, it fails because it falters on the side of being a generic pop record. While it may seem monotonous in places, the underlying songwriting is strong, and the songs reveal themselves under the pop shine through repeated listenings. There's no doubt that it will leave many of their fans disappointed, but I can't find it in me to fault them even though the project is only partially successful. It's not just that they decided to try something new, but that they wholeheartedly committed to the conceit. Heartthrob is all-in, warts and everything. I'm sure given time I'll love it as much for its imperfections.


Vanja Miskovic said...

This is my only point of reference when it comes to Tegan and Sara:

DanielT said...

While certainly no Sainthood, I'm really digging this album. But I'm especially digging "Closer", which I must've listened to 30 times. I know we're only 2 months in but I'm already declaring this Single of the Year.

DanielT said...

Okay, so I guess it was the Single of Last Year since it appears it was released last September.