Somehow I seem to have blinked and missed the first half of 2013. It is the middle of July already and summer is in full swing (much to my disgust). I’ve read a number of articles about the best albums of the year so far, and almost all of them have included the one album that I would like to single out: Heartthrob, by Tegan and Sara.
I’ve been a Tegan and Sara fan for a number of years, so you might say that I was predisposed to like this album. I participated in the online pre-order, where I waited with baited breath as we fans crashed the Warner Brothers Records servers, refreshing the page over and over until I could order my copy of the album along with a (signed) magazine and necklace (that I wear, like, all the time). Six months on and I am still listening to this record. It is still in my car, I play it when I’m doing the dishes, and I often listen to it when I’m winding down for the day (it helps me think).
Heartthrob is Tegan and Sara’s seventh studio album, and their biggest step towards a more mainstream pop sound. This isn’t to say that I think that step was a necessary one, or that it makes this album more valuable or enjoyable than any of their other albums. But I do think that Heartthrob is a great example of what a pop album should sound like. Great pop music is catchy and fun, but it does not have to be vapid or forgettable.
With the help of producer Greg Kurstin (veteran producer who has worked with Peaches, Pink, Kylie Minogue, Ladyhawke, Lilly Allen, Ke$ha, Marina and the Diamonds, KT Tunstall, Sia, Kimbra, Sky Fereira, and more), T&S have created a new sound for themselves. It isn’t a sound that will come as a complete surprise to fans that have followed their career closely, however. Since 2007’s The Con, they have been gradually introducing a more ‘pop’ sound heading towards more contemporary electronica. Sainthood (2009) was definitely a stepping-stone towards Heartthrob while retaining a lot of the indie angst they have been known for.
On top of the gradual sound progression of their studio albums, they have worked with a number of electronica and dance artists over the years. Including Tiësto’s ‘Feel it in my bones’ from 2009, ‘Body Work’ and ‘Video’ from Morgan Page’s 2012 album In the Air, as well as with David Guetta and Alessa on ‘Every chance we get we run’ (2012). The girls have also been exercising their pop-song writing chops by writing their first tracks for other pop artists. They wrote two songs for Lisa Loeb for her 2013 release No Fairy Tale, while Sara co-wrote a track for Carly Rae Jepson’s album Kiss.
After a decade in the business, they aren’t shy of trying something new. They have matured and their tastes have changed, but at the core, these girls are the same as they always were. Their songs are always thoughtful, even when venturing into the more mainstream. I have always found that albums and songs bury themselves into my life, so that when I listen to them later on, I am instantly transported to the time or place where I listened to them most, and I can remember clearly my feelings at the time. So, rather than give you a blow-by-blow account of the musical heights this album has reached, I wanted to write about my personal experience of Heartthrob. This album (and all Tegan and Sara albums) is a very personal experience for me – I relate to it in very specific ways.
Personal reflections on Heartthrob
Note: All comments about these songs/lyrics are my own interpretations of them. Quotations from the girls are from Heartthrob Magazine, January 2013, Volume 1, Number 1.
I’m not really a fan of really loud music (although I’m sure my mother would tell you otherwise), but this is one track that you have to play with the volume blasting. It makes me want to jump up and down on the spot and not give a damn that I have all the grace of an elephant. It doesn’t matter if you can’t dance, you will want to move to this song.
For me this song is about longing, lust, and sexual tension. But not the ‘will they, won’t they’ kind where you watch a series for seven seasons hoping the main characters hook up, and when they finally do you are instantly bored. This is the kind of longing that goes along with the knowledge that it will be satisfied… just not yet. This is a song about the early stages of a relationship, when it is still exciting and fresh and new; you can’t wait to see the person, be with them, touch them.
This song was written by Tegan, who says that it was meant to be about ‘when you’re just obsessed with every little detail about someone who you may not have even spoken to.’
T&S version of an angry break up song (move over Pink). This song makes me ask a lot of questions – it intrigues me. Who is ‘they’ (‘You never really loved me / Never really, never really loved me / Loved me like they did’)? I connect with this song on a very personal level – having been in relationships where I feel like the blinkers were on up until the very end; that I never bothered to really see the other person at all – I only saw what I wanted to see (or maybe they only showed me what they knew I wanted to see?).
I also feel like this track could be a comment on fame/celebrity and success. Does the way your fans see you alter how you see yourself? How someone else sees you? I can imagine that having a devoted group of fans can be intoxicating – a group of people that worship you unconditionally (yes, I am one of them). So what happens if you are in a relationship where someone challenges you, or pushes you to do better? It could be easy to feel like the fans understand you better, as they are blindly supportive.
This song, according to Sara, is about the aftermath of a breakup when you realize that you never really knew the other person, and that you never really let them in. Relationships are tough – even if you like someone, if you work out that they like an invented ‘version’ of yourself that you have created for them, it is time to end things.
I was a fool
‘I was a fool’ leads on well from ‘Goodbye, Goodbye’, further delving into the failures of a relationship when you approach it with blinkers. I have known a lot of people who put up with bad behavior from their partners, but stayed for a number of excuses (or ‘reasons’ as they might put them). As sad as it is, relationships often turn into power plays. One person has power over the other and takes advantage of that by taking them for granted and generally not treating them well. In a way, this song could easily be extrapolated to apply to abusive relationships.
I’m not your hero
I heard this song for the first time live in Cambridge before I heard the album. It wasn’t one of those songs that I heard and immediately thought ‘wow’, but it is the biggest ‘grower’ on the album (for me, anyway). It is upbeat and uplifting, but serious and political. I’ve never felt that their music has ever really been very political, or ever alluded to their sexual preferences (both girls are openly gay). This album is the first time I have felt they use their music to explicitly discuss the issue. And I love them, and this song in particular, all the more for it.
I’m someone who has a lot of strong opinions and I have a tendency to come across a touch aggressive. But underneath all that bravado I am absolutely terrified. I would hate it if anyone ever worked out that I was just as unsure of myself and everything around me as everyone else. At the same time though, I think it is so important that I fight for what I believe in. What I love about this song is that it gives me strength – knowing that it is ok to be fighting for what I believe and still be terrified to fail.
Drove me wild
Some of the best stories are about unrequited love – a longing and passion for someone that is never satisfied. I have a tendency to live in my imagination, and many of my dreams involve some kind of tragic love story where I continue on with my life, never having loved the way I did then. Ah, what a hopeless romantic I can be – in a very depressing, masochistic sort of way.
But come on, how easy is it to build something up in your head that never really had the chance to get going? It is easy to place a person or relationship on a pedestal if it never actually came to anything. You don’t know how it would have gone wrong, what ideas of the person you had projected on to them. Most of us will only imagine the good (unless you’re me – constantly imagining the worst possible scenarios for everything).
How come you don’t want me
As a girl with low self-esteem, I listen to this song and have to ask Sara ‘How are you in my head?!’ The obsessing over things, feeling like no one wants me, and yet still somehow managing to think that one day they’ll be sorry and work out they were wrong. The lyrics ‘I can’t say that I’m sorry / For loving you and hating myself’ could have been written by me.
I couldn’t be your friend
This is my personal favourite of the album. It is a great song to sing along to, and again it goes to the heart of that longing and sexual tension that I love in any good song/story. This song makes me think of when I was 14 and dumped by a boy over instant messaging. Harsh! I spent hours alone in my room feeling sorry for myself and hating the world. I swore that we could never be friends because I could never stop wanting him. Ah well, it always seems like the end of the world at the time. Of course, time passed, and we were friends again eventually. But I listen to this song and I feel like I’m right back there in my bedroom with the lights off, clutching my knees and singing along to power ballads.
‘Does your body wake
When you think about me?’
Love they say
This is the slowest track of the album and all about love. Ok, so this is a little bit too straightforwardly romantic for my liking and is probably my least favourite on the album (although still an excellent song, don’t get me wrong). According to Tegan, she was interested in looking at popular love songs and writing something about love that could be interpreted differently depending on where you are in a relationship. And with that as the intention, you can see that she absolutely achieved her goal.
If I had newly fallen in love and listened to this song I would hear it telling me that there is all the hope in the world left ahead of me. But if I was in a bad breakup, I might think it a lie or perhaps give me hope that my misery might be fixed if I could find someone new to love me. The pensive melody and unspecific lyrics are completely open to interpretation.
If this were the 80’s, this would be the power ballad of my choice. Again, this specifies the object of the singer’s affection as being female, calling out the girls’ sexuality. It is great to see them singing more openly like this. This is already a new favourite of mine to sing along to when I’m feeling low. There is such pleading in the vocals – I feel desperate and lonely listening to it, and I wish I could save everyone who has ever felt like this. There is so much heartache in so many of the tracks Sara writes, I just want to hug her and make sure she’s ok!
Shock to your system
The last track on the album is an amazing track to end on. The beat is epic, the song powerful. Sara again writes about depression and ‘that introverted place we sometimes go to when we’ve suffered a trauma.’ I think anyone who has ever felt depressed can relate to this song – that knowledge that you are unwell and the pain you feel is keeping you locked inside your own head. I have suffered from depression at various times in my life and it has always felt to me that I needed something to rescue me from myself – I needed that shock to my system.
Those of us who were determined enough to wait out Warner Brothers’ broken servers in the pre-order also received two bonus tracks, as good as any track on the album…
Guilty as charged
This song immediately brings to mind being in love with someone unavailable – but from both perspectives. When you love someone who is already in a relationship with someone else, and when you are in a relationship but have fallen for someone else. It makes me think of an indie-pop version of Joan Armatrading’s ‘The weakness in me’ mixed with Jeff Buckley’s ‘Everybody here wants you.’ The vocals in this track feel as though they could have been lifted from any of their earlier albums – it is only the backing music that places it within the Heartthrob period.
I run empty
The depressive, self-loathing masochist in me loves this song: ‘I run empty till I feel nothing inside.’ Ok, it sounds dark, sad, and depressing. But it isn’t really. While the song does talk about the failing of a relationship because of one’s own issues, it is also about coming to terms with your own failings. Maybe now that you are able to see your failings clearly you won’t make the same mistakes again. I find this song strangely uplifting and self-aware.