Thursday, October 3, 2019

album review: 'hey, i'm just like you' by tegan and sara

So I'll admit this was a swerve I didn't expect from Tegan and Sara. When this duo went outright synthpop on Heartthrob in 2013 and followed it up with Love You To Death three years later, I assumed their path had been set, especially given how much crossover success they found in the mean time. Sure, some of the diehard rock set were a little alienated by the pivot, but it seemed like a lot of them were more forgiving in the end, especially if they remembered how they started very early in their career with songs that flirted with pop structures.

But I won't deny that I was among the people who were both surprised and a little encouraged that the duo was going to bring back their electric guitars for their newest project Hey, I'm Just Like You. More to the point, it would be revisiting and tweaking many cuts they had written or cut as demos in their teenage years but given the benefit of twenty years in the industry, a little more refinement. And to me this seemed like a fascinating but smart choice: I've long held the opinion that their pop pivot did wonders for tightening up their writing and easing the strained stabs at indie rock obliqueness that left me more frustrated with their work in the 2000s than I'd normally like to admit. Now granted, I had no idea how this would translate to 2019 - going back to So Jealous and The Con, those are two records with structures and tones that are inextricably linked to the 2000s, and a quick relisten to both projects reminded me precisely how hit-and-miss they could be, especially on the more twee side - but I did see the potential, so what did we get on Hey, I'm Just Like You?

Well, I can say this: if you were expecting Tegan and Sara to return to the jangling, buzzy, borderline twee side of their 2000s output, Hey, I'm Just Like You is not that even as it does seem reflective of certain sounds in the early 2000s... it's just that said sounds were being made by Hilary Duff or Ashlee Simpson or maybe even that Brie Larson album everyone but me has forgotten about. You know, the confessional pop rock that at the time Tegan and Sara would have been considered left-of-the-dial of - or to the ears of some fans, "above that sort of thing" in the grand tradition of manufacturing veneers of authenticity. And yet as someone who tends to have a pretty big soft spot for that era of pop rock and who can appreciate an update with a modern sheen, I wound up enjoying this Tegan and Sara album a lot; maybe only on the cusp of greatness, but it works about as well as the best songs out of that era and scene - in other words, way better than most critics of the time dared admit.

And here's one of the biggest tricks to making it work: Tegan and Sara are selling all of these cuts with genuine sincerity, conscious of the smaller scale and scope of the material but also aware that with cleaner harmonies and selling these tunes with genuine emotion will make even more lightweight material stick the landing. There isn't much in the way of sarcasm or irony, and that tempers these pop songs in a different way, trading unrefined exuberance for the relatively straightforward honesty, clarity, and lack of pretentiousness that comes with being old and wise enough to not waste time with deflection. And while this has come through on Tegan and Sara's pop pivots before, the cadence and structure of these songs still has hints of that adolescent clumsiness and leaning into the inherent emotional contradictions that come in fractured relationships - only where twenty years ago it would have been rooted in teenage melodrama, as adults the framing is more considered and knowledgeable of the reality of it all. And when this album is at its best, it's playing into how the context might be slightly different separated by years, but the emotionality remains as resonant: finding love at a darkened rave when you're bottoming out can feel the same regardless on the title track, as does realizing deep wells of drug-exposed insecurity on 'Don't Believe The Things They Tell You (They Lie)' or the wish to provide wisdom and closure when you're providing support to someone questioning insecurity on 'Hello, I'm Right Here'. And what I really love about this album is not only the conflicted emotions that highlight every breakup, but how they don't let themselves off the hook, like acknowledging how people use each other on 'I Don't Owe You Anything' or how on 'I Know I'm Not The Only One' there's a flat admittance of how much the weight of others' expectations can impact the relationship. Hell, a song like 'All I Have to Give The World Is Me' might even hit harder with age, as your public persona becomes all the more entrenched and insecurities become even more deeply felt. That said, the flip side to this is that the meter and rhyme structure do have some clumsiness - the hook of 'We Don't Have Fun When We're Together Anymore' is a prime example - and sometimes the naivety of the writing doesn't quite have the same resonance, like on the acoustic ballad 'Please Help Me'.

But really, those are minor quibbles - as a whole, even if I'd argue this album feels a bit more like a compilation of songs with similar ideas than holding a full arc, there's a refinement and consistency that I found refreshing. Where I can see there being more questions comes in the pop rock production, and let me get this out of the way now: I still think the drums are a little louder than they should be, and between them and the vocals the top of the mix feels a bit clipped and compressed. Now if you're familiar with the style of early-to-mid 2000s pop rock that Tegan and Sara are emulating, this isn't precisely a terrible thing - and between the vocal progressions, near-constant acoustic accompaniment and choice of watery synths for blending, that is the era that they're emulating most, albeit with the occasional guitar lead swamped in reverb or late 80s drum cascade to ramp up the bombast. And the hooks are pretty damn great too: the flip into more restrained major keys on the hook of the title track might feel cutesy, but the gloss on the second half keeps it from feeling really twee to me, and when you match it with the blown out darkness of 'Don't Believe The Things They Tell You (They Lie)', the rich vocal harmonies off the sparking synth cascades on 'I Don't Owe You Anything' that almost remind me of modern Marianas Trench, the meaty rollick on 'I Know I'm Not The Only One', or even how 'You Go Away and I Don't Mind' breaks into a CHVRCHES-esque sparkle off the stiffer burble of the verses. And while I did wish the guitars could bring a bit more sizzle - though the opener 'Hold My Breath Until I Die' did have a surprising amount - the chipper smoothness married to solid but earnest harmonies, mostly organic percussion, rounded grooves and a mix that did allow the anthemic moments to connect pretty consistently. My only real complaint is that sometimes a few deep cuts could blur together in their sound, but often drilling into the lyrical nuance you'd find enough to differentiate them - it is a project that rewards repeated listens.

But that's the rub with this: Tegan and Sara might have written this album to call back to their youth with a polish that flew in the face of what they were releasing in the early 2000s, but if they had released this in 2003 with this sound, I know for a fact the majority of critics would have thrown them aside even more than they already did. Pop rock that balanced adolescent framing and nuance well rarely got much respect in that era and really wouldn't until later this decade, in the 2010s. And that places Hey, I'm Just Like You in a place out of time: originally composed in the 90s, refined and released in the 2010s, and and sonically would have been at home in the 2000s but would have never seen the respect it'd deserve. And yet today, I can say this is a pretty great pop rock album, and I like in a similar way I liked Niall Horan's solo debut Flicker from 2017: incredibly tight pop craftsmanship, but real yearning emotionality and lyrical nuance to boot. And as such... 8/10, and absolutely recommended. This is an album that's flying under the radar for a lot of folks, and yet it deserves real attention - and don't call it a throwback; an album like this has come through the years.

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