Released Jan. 29th on Vapor/Warner Bros. Records
I gotta admit, I didn’t expect Tegan and Sara to make a synthpop dance album. Sure the twins have tweaked their sound on each record, edging closer and closer to the pop airwaves, but up until now their core sound—and fanbase—has remained firmly in the indie rock camp. Heartthrob is a deliberately huge shift in style, full of big synthesizers, programmed dance beats, and slick pop production courtesy of Greg Kurstin (who’s worked with folks like Kylie Minogue, Kesha, Kelly Clarkson, and Katy Perry). It sounds like the indie kids’ version of Cyndi Lauper or Katie Perry. And you know what? That ain’t bad.
One certainly wouldn’t have expected this sort of sound from the acoustic-guitar-wielding sisters who released So Jealous or The Con. Maybe the first hints are to be found on their last album, Sainthood, which vacillated between Sara’s catchy pop leanings and Tegan’s more emo-ish rockers. Certainly “Alligator” and its many remixes hinted that they were ready to embrace mainstream pop production and appeal. Follow the dots from that song to their subsequent collaborations with Tiësto and Morgan Page, and the path to Heartthrob becomes a little clearer.
One of the reasons Heartthrob works is that the Quinn sisters don’t seem to merely be experimenting; they’re going into this pop thing headlong. Opening track (and lead single) “Closer” bursts forth with shimmering keyboards, an instantly danceable beat, and a huge chorus that demands to be sung along to. “Goodbye, Goodbye” continues in this vein, but with a bit more new wave-y sound that makes it sound like it’d be perfectly at home at a rave.
The dance-y tracks are counterbalanced with midtempo, dramatic heartbreakers like “I Was a Fool”, “Now I’m All Messed Up”, and the wonderful “How Come You Don’t Want Me” in which the Quinns harmonize “Why don’t you want to win me now? / Why don’t you want to show me off? / Tell me why you couldn’t try / Couldn’t try and keep me here”. These numbers illustrate that, beneath all the pop sheen, what really makes Heartthrob succeed is that Tegan and Sara are undeniably strong songwriters with a gift for melody and hooks, not to mention their powerful voices and willingness to lay their emotions bare before their audience. After all, a big part of what’s gotten them to this point, 7 albums and roughly 15 years in, is their devoted core fanbase. Though it’s likely some of those fans have been confused by the stylistic left turn of Heartthrob, they should still be able to connect with the sisters’ core songwriting skills and lyrical honesty.
Ultimately, Heartthrob is a winning gamble, both creatively and commercially: It’s Tegan and Sara’s highest-charting album yet, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 where even their prior major-label efforts had been unable to crack the top 20. It’s not perfect (the heartbreak songs occasionally sound whiny, “Love They Say” is a bit too ’90s-sounding and loaded with clichés), but it’s so unabashed and enthusiastic in tone that it’s hard not to be on the sisters’ side, rooting for them even as they take a deliberate leap away from their indie roots and toward pop stardom. After all, does the stage really matter as long as the songs are still great?