It’s a dangerous thing to define an artist by his or her (or their) willingness to defy expectation or consistently break new ground. All too often, we mistake innovation for depth or a unique tone for a meaningful one, happily trading something that sounds common but holds water for an unconventional but empty alternative.
Much of the criticism of Tegan and Sara, Canadian indie rock sister duo, is so troubling. Many fans have heaped scorn on the new record for its tendency to stray from the lively invention of the pair’s previous albums, each of which has proved bursting with heart that few other artists are able to capture or replicate, claiming that the group has fallen into a rut of more mainstream pop sound.
And while, yes, it may be true that Heartthrob, the band’s newest release, does have a more, let’s call it radio-friendly sound, this transition has not happened at the cost of the energy or the insight that gives Tegan and Sara’s music its unique emotional resonance.
For, in many ways, what makes Tegan and Sara’s discography so appealing, aside from their willingness to experiment, is the sense of interest and empathy the albums show for the romantic stories they set out to tell, many of which could easily seem, yes, conventional at first glance. Tegan and Sara’s music has always been about their ability to elevate the romantic conflicts that, when blandly illustrated, clog the arteries of modern pop. They achieve this through an attention to detail and a keen and compassionate intelligence that drives their songs to probe and explore nuances that lesser musicians might abandon in favor of broad, catchy hooks.
In stark contrast to such manicured banality, Heartthrob sets out to prove that the catchiness and verve of pop can be effectively paired with lyrical nuance, and, for the most part, undergoes the endeavor with resounding success. Drawing on the electric hum of 80s music, Tegan and Sara call on shades of synth and keyboard to inject their amorous ruminations with depth. There are certainly moments when the dichotomy proves bathetic, but on the whole, the result offers a vital redemption of the pop genre and serves as dance-worthy proof that genre does not necessarily limit the reach of the music it describes.