Progression is a tricky thing. Some bands are content to write the same songs and same albums over a span of decades. I'm sure one or two of those bands come to mind (hint: They also might creep out Sara). Others evolve in a singular direction, such that any element on their early albums is barely noticeable on their later releases. Brand New's ever-growing sense of foreboding and malaise exemplifies this trend. Somewhere between these poles is a space where artists can stretch their artistic muscles, explore new territory, but still retain the signature sound that earned them fans in the first place.
The Con was Tegan and Sara's best album to date. It was sonically dense and adventurous, and even when compared to a back catalog comprised mainly of melancholy and heartbreak, it was a very dark collection of songs. Those who saw Tegan and Sara on tour in support of The Con probably noticed how often the band had to switch instruments around in order to recreate the diverse sounds contained on that album. Even the songs themselves were arranged and rearranged differently on different tours.
Sainthood is a more straightforward record. Between the title and the cover (featuring Tegan with a stylized halo), it seems the twins are in a more lighthearted place, and the songs reflect that. While most of the songs continue to focus on interpersonal relationships, some new themes are brought to the table. The leadoff single "Hell" (the band denies any religious theme) is a socially conscious number describing Tegan's experience living in a dilapidated part of Vancouver. The bending guitar notes have been replaced with more driving, urgent chords, and the dense layers of keyboards have been replaced with staccato riffs that leave plenty of breathing room. Sara's songs in particular have a distinctly '80s vibe, and the combination of keyboards and liberal use of hi-hats begs to be remixed into a dance tune. In contrast, Tegan brings a bit of aggression to the table. "Northshore" is a bona fide punk rock song, and the loudest song they have ever released. While it's an entertaining change of pace, it unfortunately is a bit out of place and would have been better relegated to B-side status.
This songwriting is notable because, for the first time, the Quins attempted writing collaboratively. On past albums, they would write songs separately and then send them to each other for approval or minimal revisions. Approximately half the album would be "Tegan songs" and half would be "Sara songs." Keeping with the theme of "progression, but only a little bit," they only included one collaboratively written song, "Paperback Head." It sounds like an exact blend of their individual songwriting styles, with fuzzy guitars and synths wrapping around each other to excellent effect. Unfortunately, weak lyrics hamper it from being the standout it could have been. Hunter Burgan (of AFI), who played bass on Tegan's tracks on The Con, returns as a co-writer for three of Tegan's songs.
The best way I could summarize Sainthood is as "The Con lite." The subject matter is a bit more upbeat (just compare album closer "Someday" to "Call It Off") and the instrumentation is a little less cumbersome. Yet calling it "lite" implies that there is less substance, and this is not the case. Tegan and Sara have embraced the ethos of less being more, and have offered up a new collection of highly impactful songs that won't leave your ears exhausted at the end. Sainthood has minor flaws, but ultimately is a solid record that stands up to the high standard the band have set for themselves.
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