“Heartthrob” – Tegan & Sara

4 stars (out of 5)

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Product DetailsI’ve been keeping a very close eye on Tegan and Sara for a few years now, the Canadian twin sister  duo (and both of them  are gay shocka!) have gradually gone from a shrill, somewhat 2-dimensional alt-indie band to assured songwriters and performers over the space of 6 albums  and this, their seventh, promised what had surely been on the cards for some time now, the recruitment of a massively talented and successful pop producer to allow the girls to fully realise their top 20 potential, in sound at least if not sales.  Greg Kurstin has, amongst others, written for and produced Kylie, Santigold, Sia, Devo, Kelly Clarkson and Pink (alongside the work of his own group, The Bird and The Bee) with Lily Allen being his most frequent, distinctive and creatively diverse collaborator (he produced some of her debut and all of her very good second album “It’s Not Me, It’s You” and is currently working with her on a musical).

Tegan and Sara have in the last couple of years embraced dance remixes of their songs (in particular the brilliant wonky pop of “Alligator” from their last album, 2009’s “Sainthood”) and have  added their guest vocals to trance artists DJ Tiesto and Morgan Page’s work.  “Heartthrob” (and that’s definitely a heart throbbing in pain and not that of a pop idol’s appeal) is not a joyous, arms aloft, life-affirming, dance floor departure for the twins though.  It has its euphoric moments such as the rushing, power pop chords of lead single “Closer” and “Goodbye,  Goodbye” which has a huge, two-part chorus hook and exploits repetition very effectively as the song’s title suggests . But just by looking at the remaining song titles alone massive clues are given to the sisters’ general mood and along with Kurstin, who is responsible for the majority of “Heartthrob”’s production, have created a warm and full, mid-eighties influenced (Cyndi Lauper’s first album, Fleetwood Mac ‘Tango In The Night’, Madonna’s ‘Vision Quest’ soundtrack) mix of guitars and synths that sonically support the girls tales of distrust, disappointment and devastation.

With those kinds of themes and influences you shouldn’t be surprised if a power ballad (they usually terrify me) were to make an appearance and there are 2 amazing ones to choose from here. “Now That I’m Messed Up” ( ‘Now I’m all messed up, sick inside and wondering where you’re leaving your make up’ ) and in particular “I Was A Fool” both bring to mind Abba at their most domestically troubled and saddest when vocally and melodically Agnetha and Frida would somehow be both subtle and overwhelming at the same time. This album sees the first time that the girls have written songs together, they usually write tracks alone with a sole writing credit per track. If the outcome of the sibling’s teamwork is songwriting of this quality then I sincerely hope it continues along with Kurstin, I’m presuming, pushing vocal performances to a new level of soulfulness (many of the melodies are rooted in R’n’B structures).

I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” starts with pounding piano and a 60’s girl group aesthetic and by the time the vocal stutter effects arrive in the last 30 seconds has morphed into 80’s pop anthem that would befit the best of Stock, Aitkin and Waterman’s repertoire . If I had a gripe, and it would be a small one, this album could do with a few more of these kind of belters. This is a short album, just over 30 minutes, and at 10 songs can’t afford an attempt at flirty upbeat grooves like “Drove Me Wild” which only diminishes the sisters’ returns with a characterless vocal and lack of hook and “Love They Say” which sounds like a drab “Sainthood” reject which even magic pop dust can’t save. My favourite track is also the shortest, at 2.53 minutes, “How Come You Don’t Want Me” which  has an edge and a spike to it that none of the other tracks here do and sounds as though it could have been lifted from the sisters’ most satisfying and interesting album from 2007, “The Con”, containing all the best elements of the essential Tegan and Sara DNA.

“Heartthrob” is an album that is a little bit backward in coming forward; it isn’t as instant as you might expect given its credentials and rewards are definitely reaped through related listens. It might not be the sisters’ best album but it definitely contains some of their best and most emotionally engaging work. If you’re lucky enough to still have a record shop near you, then I recommend you spend a tenner on this.  Come summer, when you know all the words off by heart and are belting them out on your car journey to the coast, you’ll thank me.