Tegan and Sara - Love You to Death (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

Tegan and Sara

Love You to Death (2016)

Vapor / Warner Brothers

You can’t fault Tegan and Sara for wanting to go pop. They’ve been slugging it out over twenty years with the indie-rock thing, and frankly, between So Jealous and The Con, they’ve pretty much mastered the form. How many times can you do the gentle-cooing-reflective slab? So, it really was no surprise when the sisters started flirting with straight up pop on Morgan Page’s monster single, “Body Work.” With that anchor landed, the sisters took a some tactical shots at pure-popdom on 2013’s Heartthrob… and those shots worked. They worked really, really well.

Supported by mega-slick-producer Greg Kurstin (he-of-Geggy Tah… remember “Whoever you are”?), Tegan and Sara cut some of their catchiest singles, including the monster dance-jams “Now I’m all messed up” and “Closer.” But, not only where those tunes catchy, they had substance. But, yet, on top of that, all the songs bore the unquestionable mark of this sorta-alt sorta-mainstream duo. No one can do what Tegan and Sara can.

So, with the measured experiment a success, the duo threw in all their chips with Kurstin, making him the pop-muse to their indie songwriting strength on Love You to Death. And let’s be frank, everyone wanted Tegan and Sara to conquer the pop world. They’ve put in the roadwork and finally, in a homogenous pop-zone, something unique! We don’t need another Robin Thicke. We don’t need another Biebs. (I’m not going to dis Taylor Swift here. I’m not necessarily a fan, but mainstream critics are way too hard on her, and tend to forget the very real issue of sexism when a certain golden boy needlessly makes very sexist remarks towards her).

But, the difference between pop and indie, is that powerful lyrics and earnest emotion can save a hookless rock song. Those two things cannot save a hookless pop song. It seems everyone was hoping for THE Tegan and Sara pop album. Instead, we got a pop album featuring Tegan and Sara.

The difference being where Tegan and Sara used to shape and craft their songs to their earnest vulnerability and poetic frankness, here, Kurstin summons some all-purpose beats and sets the twins vocals over the top. Much in style of 80s Jamaican riddims, you could strip Tegan and Sara’s vocals off these tracks and drop in someone else, and it wouldn’t feel misplaced all. It also doesn’t help that all of these songs have the same mega-slick texture. Kurstin seems to confuse BIG with catchy. When there’s nothing really to latch on to you ear, such as “White Knuckles,” he simply layers track on top of track, and then adds generic filters to try to make non-compelling material seem compelling. (Though, once in a while he does lay down some cool Vangelis-style background menace). It doesn’t quite work.

Neither does it help that he mixes both of the sisters voices into the same tiny box. One of Tegan and Sara’s core strengths, maybe their core strength, is the interplay between their vocal textures- Sara’s ethereal voice drifting past Tegan’s wounded coo. But here, instead of getting a Tegan and a Sara, we just get two Tegaras singing at the same time. Why?

The sisters for their part make an valiant effort to make pop music with some substance. There’s no mindless “let’s party, woo hoo!” barrenness here. Instead, both sisters, who always have their hearts on their sleeves, open their diary more than ever before, or at least, contribute a greater directness. See the clever “Boyfriend” or the admirable ballad “100x.” Likewise, “White Wedding” plays with the issue on how the sisters are fighting for sexual orientation equality in marriage, but make the point that just because someone can get married, doesn’t mean he or she should.

But, due in part to the one-size-fits-all pop beats here, all songs are mired in the same sort of gentle melancholy. The sad pop album can be done, but to do it, you have to have either hard beats or some real character. I look to Like a Virign for the former, and Here, My Dear for the later. Kurstin’s beats sink either of these gambits, and really, maybe the sisters should have injected a couple bangers here to give the sad songs more of a punch. A comedown following a party can be heart wrenching. But, if it’s all moping, it’s kind of just mopey.

All that being said, Love You to Death IS solid. In a way, it’s sort of like those now-cherished, then forgotten, 80s downtempo pop albums ala the first Human League and Modern English lps. Maybe, taken as an entire piece, the album’s point is to express a single emotion, or a small range, and really dwell on that feeling. Maybe it’s sort of meant to not be super catchy, and instead, maybe its meant to force the listener to engage with it, rather than visa-versa. To a degree, it works in that the sisters have crafted an album the evokes that general wistfulness heard on the early New Order and Smiths albums. Still, one does wish for a few more bangers on the album so that we don’t have to wait twenty years for this album’s retrospective recognition to come- if that recognition does ever come and if it's deserved in the first place.