Artist: Tegan and Sara
Label: Warner Bros
Heartthrob, semantically, has (at least) two obvious meanings- the slightly retro-referencing idea of the crush fantasy, a swoon-worthy (and usually male) poster, a pin-up for gazing at and giggling over. And then there’s the cardiac swell- the panicked drop, the almost-sickened reality lurch as you feel your heart literally throb. The dull space between beats, intense and disquiet, half desperate for some kind of ventilation, an intervention, flittering in the adrenaline burst of some fearful need.
The swing between the two states- of blissful, panting daydream and cold sweat, death grip coronary is where Tegan and Sara, the greatest (and cutest) folk pop lesbian sorority in all of music, offer this album.
The overwhelming majority of things written about it are surprised they’ve ‘gone pop’ -oh, jog on. They’ve always been pop, ever since the Yellow and Red demos and it’s never been a dirty word. They have, however, always been a woodier sort of pop, a sort of earthy, clay-and-green, if you’re synaesthetic. All acoustic hollows and thrums, folky tree-music.
And I’ve, along with an awful lot of other people, loved them for it. Their angry girl music is the sort of rage against the computer screen that happens at 4am in a rush of anxiety, their sex songs are about illicit exhibitionism through a late-night apartment window and their love songs are the most sincere vows to never mess things up again ever to trip out of a teenager’s lips. The emotions and the stories in their songs are pure pop- in it’s most exquisite, sugar-sweet and arsenic-painful expression of the ecstasy and agony of love and a constant struggle with the self.
For Heartthob, they’ve polished it up. The thing that keeps striking me, as I listen to the album is how incredibly, dazzlingly shiny it is. It sounds crystalline, prismatic, a refracted brilliance that’s almost blinding, demanding your attention. And it is one of the emotionally saddest albums I’ve heard in years.
Anyone who’s heard Womack and Womack’s ‘Teardrops’ will know that being a banging disco floorfiller is absolutely no guarantee of it not being one of the saddest songs in the world. And not every song on an album has to be heartbroken for it to be heartbreaking, of course. Which is why I want to talk about this as three key themes.
If you don’t want to read an in-depth breakdown, then in prece: this is a lusty, hopeful, heartrending masterpiece of eighties-influenced synth pop, propelled and directed by Tegan and Sara’s customary emotional complexity. It’s on Spotify, go listen.
And for the rest, here’s my customary thousand word exposition-
What you are is lonely
Lyrically, that’s going backwards but I think it’s the key line. Heartthrob opens on a stormer, the lead single ‘Closer’-
It’s a sprint rush of a song, a heady, lustful burst of ‘I will say pretty much anything to get you naked but that’s just because you are so amazingly awesome that I can’t believe it’s happening.’ It’s falling over itself, a little bit cocky and a little bit wrongfooted, making no mistake that it wants to roll you into bed but also sweetly awestruck. Despite the bravado of “all you think of lately is getting underneath me” there’s the nervous proposal of just getting a little bit closer, the promise that it won’t treat you like you’re typical. It’s tender and excited and head over heels.
Similarly propulsive, probably even ‘poppier’ (whatever that means) is ‘Goodbye, Goodbye.’ This isn’t, despite the sparkling, soda stream synths and the big eighties beat, a love song, it’s one of the most broken things I’ve ever heard. The end of a relationship that’s sucked everything out of you, that crying, foetal moment of rage that this has taken your everything and you were just being stupid- “goodbye, I don’t wanna feel the need to hear your voice/goodbye, I don’t wanna feel the need to see your face” that urgent need to forget what a fool you’ve made of your own heart, to run away from almost everything and especially them- “I can’t stand it/all the things that I know/I can’t stand it/all the things I’ve let go” and all for nothing, in the end; at least, that’s how it feels at the time. The most acutely sharp, heartbreaking moment comes in the middle eight- “you let me try/knowing there was nothing I could do to change you/you coulda warned me/told me there was nothing I could do to change you” – effervescent in its heartbreak, this is a shimmering explosion of tears, the sort of heartbreak montage you get in a shoujou anime, plaintive and furious and despite its bubblegum features, very grown up. There’s a certain exhaustion to a mature heartbreak, a lack of caring who was right as much as who has to move their stuff and who’s going to sort all this out and how much time you’ve lost- there’s still a lot of who was right, of course but this isn’t Taylor Swift.
Which brings me neatly to ‘I Was A Fool’ -dressed in the sweetest stylings, this is a heartbreaking analysis of a relationship doomed from the start- it’s lyrically clever (“but stand still was all we did/a love like ours is never fixed”) and emotionally resigned, explaining not coldly but with no intent to change things, writing this history off.
You never really knew me
‘I’m Not Your Hero’ is and was within seconds of hearing it, one of the best things I have ever heard. It is a searing, fuschia melody, a burst of chug and determination. It’s not hard to chronically over-identify with the lyrics- “standing where I am now/standing up at all/I was used to feeling like I was never gonna see myself at the finish line” -if you’ve ever struggled. And who hasn’t struggled? Especially with themself. It’s a song about forgiving and appreciating yourself, shedding off a deeply dark time not to end up at peace but to wade back into the fray- “I’m not your hero but that doesn’t mean we’re not one and the same/I’ll do my best to walk the finest line ’till I’ve had all that I can take” -in the great theme of amazing, chuggy, determined Tegan and Sara love songs, which declare that this time it is going to be better seriously for real. This is the first time that the love has been offered to self-esteem, the respect to a personal experience and the determination to be better not for another person. And the first time it feels like it might really work -as sincere as ‘This Is Everything’ or ‘I Won’t Be Left’ are they always seemed a little bit doomed.
‘Drove Me Wild’ is another anthem to the theme of passionately doomed love- ”you carried romance in the palm of your hand/you put the brakes on us”. It’s probably the album’s indie-est moment, if that’s really a concept and one of the more basic song structures but still enormously melodic and appealing, filled with tangled sheets and the sun-kissed skin of a pin-up.
‘How Come You Don’t Want Me’ is about what happens outside those sheets, the external relations department of a relationship; ”why don’t you wanna win me now?/why don’t you wanna show me off?/tell me why you couldn’t try/couldn’t try and keep me here?” Being a secret girlfriend is no way to go, wanting to feel like you’re wanted is important. But also there’s a petulant tone here that’s always been one of the most charming and relatable aspects of Tegan and Sara’s confessional style, the slight poutiness of a borderline-unreasonable moment of pride when even if the other person’s wrong, there’s no socially good way of expressing the frustration. Ditto with ‘I Couldn’t Be Your Friend,’ an injured list of complications too great to ever tolerate their presence again, mutual blaming too bitter a taste in the air.
All I wanna get is a little bit closer
Heartthrob is deeply wounded and most of it is sad. Its emotional palette is reds and pinks, raw and tender, skin scrubbed too fiercely. But for all its sadness, all its discussion of never-going-to-work relationships, it’s an incredibly hopeful album. Not optimistic, per se but determined, teeth-gritted and snarling. Hope’s necessary for that, even if it is in small and ragged quantity. And hope’s never really stronger than when it’s down to its last shreds.
Which is why at the end of all this pain, there’s ‘Love They Say’ -”you don’t need to wonder/if love will make us stronger/there’s nothing love can’t do” guilelessly delivered like a chant, a mantra, a not-quite-belief but perhaps if it’s said with enough conviction enough times then it’ll work. It feels almost out-of-step with the rest of the album, so guileless but this is absolutely making a point, that the hurts overcome in ‘I’m Not Your Hero’ weren’t to turn a heart armored, that’s going to hurt again but that it’s wonderful. Which I guess so much so romance but if it wasn’t some integral part of human thinking then we wouldn’t keep repeating it, needing it repeated.
Next, a poised, elegant and utterly hurl-yourself-on-the-floor, lie-there-staring-dumbly-at-the-kettle-too-sad-to-move, numb-and-yet-somehow-stabbingly-painful masterpiece. ‘Now I’m All Messed Up’ is spectacular, an Annie-Lennox-worthy swirl of drama, wisdom and acute, sharp pain. It’s one of the songs on the album that is most spectacularly glassy- a chandelier of diamond shards, shining and blinding and razor sharp-
Stay/you’ll leave me in the morning anyway/my heart/you cut it out you never liked me anyway-
Everything about this song is wry, self-knowing, a tiny bit self-loathing and a little desperate. From the sharp crescendos ”now I’m all messed up/sick inside wondering where/where you’re leaving your make up” -aside from being one of only a handful of explicitly feminine-coded references to paramours on the album, the image is so sharply personal; smudgy lipstick tubes and eyeliner pens accidentally dropped in sinks, left on bedroom cabinets. And that soaring, beautiful, motivational-if-it-weren’t-so-broken refrain; ”go (please stay) go (please stay) go if you want/I can’t stop you/you go if you want to, I can’t stop you” -some sort of sun-bleached moment of unbearable clarity, no hiding places for the revelation and resignation.
And all that wry wisdom, all the self-knowledge of the album, the pride and the forgiveness comes to bear on album closer ‘Shock to your System.’ When I was listening to this album, I knew that I wanted to write about it. Firstly because it is very beautiful, quite probably my album of the year and secondly because I was annoyed by the ‘indie girls go pop’ narrative it was being shoehorned into. Every time I tried to, though, it came out as astonished spluttering about how incredibly shiny it all was- I have colour/sound synaesthesia and although I’ve tried to repress the extent to which I refer to it as some kind of prismatic statue it’s still how it appears in my mind.
Then I started thinking about this, as the album closer. And the line that I quoted to talk about the first segment of the album- ”what you are is lonely” -it’s the refrain of this track, not an accusation (as it reads, detached) but a reassurance; it’s ok to feel this way. And amongst the toughness of the chorus, the self-schooling of the verses (you’re only meant to hurt once in a while/who gave you reason?) this murmured comfort felt like the heart of the album. The search for contact and the bravery involved, even if it doesn’t look like heroics to others, is central to the concept of a heartthrob, lust and desire and the unattainable (or untameable) and the way it tears you up needs a platitude, a reminder to be kind to yourself-
Tegan and Sara’s confessional torch songs suit the emotive scale of electronica incredibly well. Synths and keyboards have allowed huge, dramatic freedom to thousands of artists in expressing this sort of broken hearted hope, the poise and ambiguity and tiredness and sadness and longing. The Pet Shop Boys and St Etienne have made a career out of precisely that point of anxious heartbreak and desperate search for something comforting and Tegan and Sara slot both comfortably and spectacularly into that framework. I don’t know if they’ll stay with this style (they are musically chameleon between albums) but the results, on Heartthrob are an emotively extraordinary, delicate and exemplary pop album so good it seems already classic.