God bless the sell-outs. Or rather, bless those who aren’t afraid to change things up and knowing that a career redirection does not mean suddenly becoming obsessed with Warp Records and Stockhausen. Bless knowing how to follow your bliss, even if said bliss is coated in the kind of sugar not uncommon in sour sweets. Bless the maturity to know that turning your nose at pop music is the vestige of the adolescent. Bless Tegan & Sara, for turning out to be an incredibly strong pop music machine without sacrificing their identity. Who would have guessed? I don’t know if he would have been a fan to begin with, but the change in direction probably gave Steve Albini a conniption fit. But who cares?
This isn’t new, of course. 2013’s Heartthrob was the duo’s first stagedive into abandoning their guitars for bouncy synths and bright drums. Greg Kurstin, one of that album’s producers, returned to man the boards for Love You To Death, and unlike many of the other acts on his formidable CV (Adele, Sia, Lily Allen, and The Shins weirdly enough), the songcraft here is more focused on remaining punchy and avoiding flash and pomp. The album is a hair over half an hour long, none of the songs over 3-and-a-half minutes. If Heartthrob bridged the old and new Tegan and Sara while still retaining splashes of recognisable character from their old work, this new album, tight and economical, shows what happens when the ripples fade away.
Lyrically, the band continues boiling down the complicated rigours of love and relationships into simple and sometimes devastating lines. ‘Boyfriend’ is a prime example, based on a love triangle where the subject of their affection is keeping her new relationship with a woman a secret from her boyfriend. It’s a situation ripe with the nuances of sexuality, the potential for hurt, the fear of abandonment and shame, and the excitement of new love all wrapped up into one. “You kiss me like your boyfriend… I don’t want to be your secret anymore”. The existence of pop songs that are willing to face the difficulties of life from a queer perspective is rare enough (no, ‘Same Love’ does not count), and it’s significant to see such a song confront that reality.
Elsewhere, they decide to stop dithering on leaving a relationship (‘100x’, a piano-led comparatively effect-less song I can easily see being used in Britain’s Got Talent, and YES I mean that as a compliment), knowing when to stop taking someone for granted (‘U-Turn’, featuring a summery drum sample not unlike something John Talabot might cook up for a warmup set), and the difficult fact that starting a relationship in any circumstance takes a willingness to work and learn (‘Faint of Heart’).
Detractors of the pop style may try and claim that Tegan & Sara have succumbed to shallowness to appeal to many, but that wouldn’t be true. These are the kind of sophisticated, endlessly relatable songs they’ve done their entire career, only now with an added sheen that makes it click in unexpected ways. Heartthrob was surprisingly re-playable, revealing itself with added listens and proving that embracing pop can be more of a deep dive than a shallow dip. Every time I’ve listened to Love You To Death I’ve had a new favourite song, suggesting a similar potential. Bless the sell-outs. Bless the buyers-in.