Sunday, June 5, 2016

album review: 'love you to death' by tegan and sara

So let's go back to the topic of 'selling out'.

Now a few episodes back I raised the point about how even when it didn't involve a shift in genre that 'selling out' wasn't inherently a bad thing - hell, sometimes it's the first chance for bands to discover a knack for melody or hooks that they'd never bothered with in the past. And for those who do pivot towards pop... well, a pop sensibility isn't exactly a bad thing if it leads to populism without compromising artistic identity - or hell, even if it does, if the hooks are irresistible I'm prepared to forgive a lot.

Want a perfect example of that? Tegan And Sara, the Canadian indie rock identical twins that developed a decent amount of buzz in Canada but I would never consider them an act I liked. Sure, they have a couple songs in that genre that I liked - the most notable being the title track from their 2007 album The Con - but for the most part I was never impressed by their songwriting or their hooks, even if I could appreciate some of the unique ideas that colored albums like Sainthood. They were always a band I wanted to like a lot more than I did - and yet in 2013, they partnered with producer Greg Kurstin, who has worked with nearly every mainstream pop act in the past decade, to release Heartthrob. The album was an outright pivot into synthpop, and I will handily say it was the best record they've ever released. It wasn't quite a great album - it falls off after the first six or so songs, and I wasn't wild about the gratuitous pitch correction - but it was such a better fit than indie rock for the pair, if only because it accentuated the strength of their melodies and better fit the lighter scope of their writing. And while everyone loved 'Closer', I was much more impressed with 'I Was A Fool', which was one of my favourite songs of 2013.

But now it's three years later, Tegan And Sara had ditched all other producers besides Greg Kurstin, and the edit for the album looked tighter than ever, barely over a half hour. And sure, Greg Kurstin's star might have been tarnished a bit with overexposure - between Sia, Lily Allen, and Kelly Clarkson, he's been attached to far too much lackluster pop music - but I had faith they could synthesize something awesome: did they make it work?

Honestly... I've been sitting on this review for a couple of days now, and while it is a good record, I'm not sure that Love You To Death is Tegan And Sara's best work. I don't think it's better than Heartthrob, and while it does have a few moments in the writing and performance that I think redeems it, it's honestly not really a record I find all that interesting or deeply engaging - in other words, the definition of a decent if forgettable record.

Where things get complicated is explaining why, because this album should work better than it does. For one, the writing is pretty on-point - Tegan And Sara have always been deft pop songwriters in capturing a certain emotional complexity that tends to give pop songs nuance. Most of the situations that they describe could be resolved with a certain blunt honesty or very logical course of action - and Tegan And Sara are very much aware of this - but emotions don't really work that way and the duo gets that too. Take 'That Girl' for example, where the protagonist is stuck in a crappy relationship and is infuriated she's become the girl who gets walked over, with the central conflict being more of self-confidence than anything else. The best song on the album, the stripped back piano ballad '100x' is probably the best example, framed as a breakup where long-stewing emotions are finally at the surface - which cuts even heavier when you realize Sara wrote the song specifically about the possibility of the pair splitting apart, emotions that are also captured on the more abstract conflict of 'White Knuckles'. And one other thing I appreciate is that Tegan And Sara are playing into the queer side of their writing a little stronger - yeah, the undercurrents and subtext were there on previous albums, but songs like 'Boyfriend' and 'BWU' bring it into the main text, in the former case asking a girl to stop treating her like a sexual experiment and more like a relationship, and the latter case driving the reassurance their love is strong, but they don't need the wedding and tradition. 

But if I am going to come down on the writing and performance at all, I feel there is still untapped potential. For one, as strong as the vocal harmonies can be, I wish the songwriting took more chances and played off their distinctive voices more, play off each other in the narrative as well as vocals. Beyond that, the writing is remarkably tight, but there are definitely cases where it can ring as a little awkward or even formulaic. Album closer 'Hang On To The Night' is probably the biggest culprit, but the hook on 'Faint Of Heart' always felt a little clumsy to me. And then there are the few songs where the scenario doesn't quite click, the biggest being 'Dying to Know' - it was already a bit of a messy song instrumentally, and we'll get to that, but lyrically it feels a bit confused as well, trying to balance moving on with the curiosity of knowing what an ex is doing. And yeah, I completely get the emotional sentiment driving the song, we've all that impulse, but it's also the song that seems the least self-aware, and that does hurt it. Contrast that to 'U-Turn', where the song does plenty to highlight the protagonists' own failings and getting called on them to change - and hell, on that song the protagonist almost feels too self-flagellating, the point where they're making excuses to save the relationship.

But that's not the biggest issue, and here's where we need to talk about the instrumentation and production. And let me clarify right out of the gate that as melodic composers, Tegan And Sara can be kind of hit-or-miss with me, but in recent years they've scored more hits than misses. And on a melodic level, I'm not saying this record doesn't have hooks - I don't think we get instantly memorable moments like 'Closer' or 'I Was A Fool' or even 'Goodbye', but there are good moments here. And hell, I could even get behind their choice to ditch guitars altogether for keyboards - wouldn't have been my choice for synthpop, especially considering I'd prefer more groove or punch, but this could have worked. The problem... honestly, I think it's Greg Kurstin's production. I don't know if it's overexposure from his particular sound or that he's not delivering the way he did in his peak, but there is a real lack of colour to this record, not helped by a focus on percussion over actual melody. Take the hook of 'That Girl' - it's anchored by the faded backing piano and some glassy synth, but it seems like so much more focus comes in the bassy hits and glossy of the track than the underlying melodic tone. Or take the melody on 'Faint Of Heart' - it's so muted through the verses in bassy tones that when it tries to pull up on the hook with more flair, the clatter of thicker drums at all tones drowns it out. It's an issue of the beat textures taking precedent over the melody itself, to the point where I wanted to give 'Dying To Know' a pass for the plucky tone that opens the track... that falls into low buzzy fragments and very sandy percussion that doesn't favour any tune. And what's bizarre is how despite how much this albums wants to emulate 80s synthpop, the production never really gives it the scope and swell to hit those killer hooks the same way Bleachers or Carly Rae Jepsen did with their interpretations.  And I kind of get why - this record has a more intimate focus lyrically, and there still is tightness here on tracks like 'BWU' that almost approaches an act like La Roux. But even when this album has a workable melodic hook like there or on the hookup 'Stop Desire', it almost seems like it's in spite of the production, and when you have melodies like these, not emphasizing them is a critical mistake, especially when the production doesn't get varied or colourful enough to compensate.

So overall... look, I think most Tegan And Sara fans will be onboard with Love You To Death, but I don't like it as much as I want, and it's in large part thanks to Greg Kurstin's stubborn refusal to evolve past retro-80s production that has identifiable problems putting percussion over melody for at least the past three years. And while he has definitely produced music I like and does bring a certain punch and tightness here, the emotions and melodies of this record needed more spark and colour to them. And as such I'm just not really gripped by this record, which is coming in at a strong 6/10 and a recommendation, but a slightly qualified one. If you're looking for a pretty sleek, reasonably well-written synthpop album that you might end up forgetting in a week or two, you'll probably like it. Otherwise... well, you could definitely get worse, so I'd probably take it.

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