On Heartthrob, the seventh album by the Canadian twins Tegan And Sara, the duo leaps from the indiepop world and makes straight-up crystalline pop music about heartbreak. Maura Johnston, Brad Nelson, and Chris Randle discuss the boldness and effectiveness of this aesthetic move.
Brad Nelson: Maybe we should explain at the outset why we want—need—three people to talk about this record.
Chris Randle: It has too many emotions for one person to contain. It’s like how in the Zelda universe there’s the Triforce Of Power, the Triforce Of Wisdom and the other one.
Brad: Yet the “too many emotions” received are all along pretty linear descriptions of heartbreak.
Chris: The Triforce Of Sadness, the Triforce Of Regret, the Triforce Of Lust.
Maura Johnston: But even though there’s this excess of emotion on Heartthrob, it’s distilled into gleaming pop-song packages, which are much more produced than Tegan And Sara’s earlier material.
Chris: And the emotion isn’t expressed with ambivalence or cryptic lyrics, either. Most of the song titles—”I Was A Fool,” “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend”—are baldly declarative.
Brad: True. I’d like to say that at skeletal depth these are all still very much Tegan And Sara songs, though.
Brad: As much as there’s a lot more space on this record songwriting-wise, the songs are still written with deep knowledge of where their voices can travel.
Chris: Yes. The keyboards are way up in the mix, but the singing still sounds like Tegan And Sara Classic (TM).
Brad: With different production, these songs would be more recognizably tied to the rest of the duo’s discography.
Chris: You can hear the creases in their voices.
Brad: When they harmonize together they knot, and their voices create this complex network of hurt. Which sounds like I’m talking about a metal band.
Maura: I think being really up-front about your emotions is pretty metal.
Chris: I love how, on “I Was A Fool,” they eventually begin singing at one remove from each other, as if one twin is the other’s internal echo.
Brad: That was done a lot on their earlier material—one would loosen from the other harmonically and create a pocket, or a panicked refraction within the song. But it has a different effect in the glassier pop on Heartthrob. It feels extremely mannered.
Maura: This might be a good time to point out that Heartthrob was primarily engineered by Greg Kurstin, late of the ’90s alt-rock blip Geggy Tah and more recently of producing songs for the likes of Kelly Clarkson and P!nk.
Chris: I really like saying the phrase “Geggy Tah” aloud. It sounds like a cartoon dinosaur’s name.
Maura: He was also half of the lush pop duo The Bird and the Bee. And he cowrote Lily Allen’s “The Fear,” and worked on Kelly’s “Dark Side” and P!nk’s “Try,” among other things.
Chris: I felt like his general style was more familiar to me than any particular examples of it, for whatever reason. [...]