Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob a bold shift

Any band that attempts to reinvent itself risks losing sight of what made it popular in the first place. The annals of rock history are littered with ill-considered albums by bands trying out a “new sound,” that were inevitably rejected by the fans. It is an unfortunate aspect of the music industry, where bands are encouraged to become complacent once they have reached a certain level of success. And if a band attempts to broaden its appeal, accusations of “selling out” will overshadow whatever changes the band makes to the actual music. All of these factors discourage experimentation from established bands, so it is surprising that indie folk duo Tegan and Sara have chosen to shift their sound drastically on their new album. Their seventh full-length release, Heartthrob is firmly within the category of electro-pop, a far cry from the sparse acoustic guitars and haunting harmonies of their early work.

On first impression, Heartthrob is entirely unlike Tegan and Sara’s typical sound, but on closer examination, the album takes certain cues from the band’s discography and expands upon them for a larger audience. Even when their songs only consisted of the two sisters’ voices and an acoustic guitar, they were always structured around catchy choruses, and this new album focuses on stacking as many hooks into each song as the songs can hold, in the same way most big pop songs do today. The band’s lyrics have always been about bare emotions, and that honest style makes sense for this type of pop. Additionally, their recent albums have been using fuller instrumentation, particularly 2009’s Sainthood, which drew on some of the electronic influences that Heartthrob embraces entirely. These elements of continuity provide a link to the band’s previous music, but as a whole Heartthrob is a major change for the band.

The album begins with standout track “Closer,” which is something of a mission statement for the album. With its big chorus and dance beat, the song would not feel out of place on a top 40 radio station. There is no preamble, no build-up. It starts with a catchy hook, following it up with another, and another, repeating that pattern. It isn’t a complex song, but it is a tightly built, satisfying piece of pop music. The lyrics are similarly direct, but they are in keeping with the song’s energetic bounce, and the sisters deliver the lines in their own distinct style, which helps to differentiate the song from its more mainstream pop counterparts.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album never quite reaches the heights of “Closer,” a fact that reveals one of the weaknesses of this particular sound: there isn’t very much variety here. Almost every song is between three and four minutes long, and they all adhere to the same basic structure. The lyrics in particular become repetitive, as the middle of the album contains songs like “I’m Not Your Hero,” “How Come You Don’t Want Me” and “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend.” As you might expect with titles like those, the album is full of standard variations on the romantic drama as pop song story. This is actually in keeping with many of Tegan and Sara’s earlier songs, which were equally focused on romance, but the repetition is more notable here, when so many of the songs they pull from stylistically also rely on the same tropes.

Some of the album’s highlights come when it breaks from those tropes and becomes more of a synthesis of the band’s previous style with this new electronic aesthetic. Many of the songs feature a verse or two which make great use of harmonies between the sisters, but they move too quickly past these to the more standard choruses. Another highlight is “Now I’m All Messed Up,” a slower song which manages to show how the band’s new style offers more opportunities for the future. It is the second-to-last song on the album, and after listening to seven songs that try to emulate the success of the first track, “Now I’m All Messed Up” is a refreshing change of pace. While it certainly relies on romantic tropes, in this case an ode to a departing lover, it does so effectively, as the slower tempo gives the lyrics space to breathe.

So as a reinvention, Heartthrob is mostly effective. It maintains enough of the band’s style to keep longtime fans happy, but it also introduces enough new elements to attract new fans. In fact, if you listen to a lot of Robyn or similar electro-pop, but would never think to listen to an indie folk duo, do yourself a favor and seek out “Closer.” The rest of the album never quite lives up to the promise of that track, but there are moments that indicate where the band could go in the future to expand on their new sound. The prospect of the band’s next album, when they have become more comfortable with this style, is genuinely exciting. It is fairly rare to be able to say that about a band’s eighth album. So while Heartthrob might drag a little in the middle, it fits nicely into Tegan and Sara’s legacy as a welcome departure from the norm.

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