By Liam Prost
Warner Music Canada
It’s been 10 years since the Calgary-born Tegan and Sara’s career-defining The Con (2007) dropped. That album saw the talented fingers of Kaki King, Chris Walla and Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie, among others help grease the chains of Tegan and Sara’s raw indie rock. Few songwriters can pen and perform such shiver-inducing lyrics as “maybe I would have been something you’d be good at,” from closing track “Call it Off,” with as much vulnerability and emotional resonance as Tegan and Sara. Synths sirened through the dry acoustic guitars of the title track while the two singers sang percussively on top of each other, carefully squeezing chamber-pop influences into their bedroom pop recording aesthetic. Those same synth leads hit hard on almost every track of new record Love You To Death, but nine years and ten buckets of glitter later, the duo’s music is almost unrecognizable, for better or worse.
When Heartthrob’s (2013) single “Closer” dropped, it signaled a confident move into polished mainstream-ready pop music. The track pops to life with massive synth chords while the titular lyric bleeds out of pitch defiantly, a quiet reminder of the duo’s indie origins. The chorus features the triumphantly belted “let’s make things physical” over a sharp drum line. The expensive-sounding, detail-intensive production lubricated the song for Top 40 radio consumption, while the charm and indelible songwriting that typify Tegan and Sara grounded the song in relatability. The record that followed was polished at every corner, possibly to a fault, but as a move into synth-pop, it came across as authentically as it could have, and it skewed towards sharper drums, dirtier synths, and retained a few guitar tracks, all of which are shelved entirely for Love You To Death.
Heartthrob propelled the duo into Taylor Swift-opening glory, and as pop stars go, you could do a lot worse than Tegan and Sara. Their unique style and narrative, humble origins, and characteristic doubling, demands twice the stage. Nothing about Tegan and Sara has ever felt written or manufactured.
Love You to Death is lovingly imagined, but wholly sterile in ways that Tegan and Sara’s music has never been, even with the added sheen of Heartthrob. Lead single “Boyfriend” opens with strangely familiar, effervescent electronics. Not familiar in a nostalgic sense however, but rather, reminiscent of other currently successful pop acts, and of course, the young producers whose music those acts borrow from. It refrains from being an explicitly tropical-house track or anything that deliberative, but the production on “Boyfriend” carries the ‘80s inflected pop song directly into the currently musical moment in the least climactic way possible. The boring arrangement on this track is doubly disappointing because it is so easy to envision a more interesting instrumental, considering Tegan and Sara have offered us so many in the past. “Boyfriend” is, at its heart, a smartly written track about the complications of dating someone whose sexual aim and/or orientation is in flux, or at least not perfectly centered. The song is progressive, socially nuanced, and most importantly for the genre, endlessly catchy. That said, the hammy beat drops and floaty vocals turn the song into an unwanted remix of itself, and not in the cool “Ignition” sense.
Further, the explicit themes of “Boyfriend” offer a strong reminder of how Tegan and Sara’s identities as gay women has been such a quotable part of their musical mythos from day one. The duo has never used either as a gimmick or a crutch, but rather, the love songs abound throughout their discography have held a level of gendered ambiguity, and thus moments where their sexuality comes out explicitly, feel stronger in their infrequency. Thankfully, this is also true on Love You to Death. “Stop Desire” most notably uses its title and chorus to confidently emote the undeniability of both female, although more specifically, lesbian, sexual and romantic desire.
Strong pop songwriting like this permeates the entire record on tracks like the almost-heartbreaking sparkle-piano ballad “100x,” and the obvious album standout “U-Turn.” The latter track emotes the confidence the project is contingent on more strongly than elsewhere on the record, and the more muted arrangement suits the song’s lyrical reliance. The witty quip “Make a change or this is gonna stall / Shape up or you’ll drop me like a call” perfectly prefaces the punchy chorus. “I wanna write a love song / even though you never asked me for one” carries both the confidence of the duo’s newfound pop stardom, as well as a profound sense of self-awareness. The charming contradiction therein is that the song is about writing a love song and not a love song. Moments like these carry the legacy of wit and wonder that Tegan and Sara that lose some of their impact from the overly shiny arrangements.
“B/W/U” is the most reminiscent cut on the record, offering a sparse electronic bed with lo-fi drum machines and clean synth arpeggios. The intro and post-chorus have a slow and cute electric-piano lead that calls to mind former producer Chris Walla’s influence, although even this track feels all-too-perfectly pitched and polished, a clear reminder that T&S’ Chris Walla days are over.
It feels strange to suggest something so cliché, but Love You to Death listens more like what studio executives probably think Tegan and Sara should sound like than what has made them such a tour-de-force. Such a sentiment feels doubly strange considering they have been major-label produced for almost ten years, thus the new, overly glossy production is certainly a stylistic choice by Tegan and Sara themselves.
As an exercise in pop songwriting, Tegan and Sara offer a master class, but the arrangement feels stuck in high school. Love You to Death is a stall for Tegan and Sara, not necessarily a misstep, not necessarily an all-time-low, but not entirely free of disappointment either.Love You To Death, tegan and sara