It’s become passé to talk about selling out. And so, when industry veterans Tegan and Sara finally started to achieve a modicum of mainstream success with the inescapable hit single “Closer” about four years ago, it inspired palpable excitement among longtime fans, coupled with a simmering anxiety: Yes, they undeniably deserved this recognition. What they might have sacrificed to achieve it, though, wasn’t immediately obvious.
On the surface, “Closer” sounded different from the Quin sisters’ past output, and the content of their latest release, Love You to Death, follows that precedent. 2013’s Heartthrob, which “Closer” appeared on, was full of slick production and unsinkable hooks that belied the deeper emotions that had inspired them. It provided just enough of a bridge from their previous release, 2009’s darker and heavier Sainthood, for their core fanbase to cross. The rest of pop culture, it seemed, viewed them as something of a novelty act — lesbian twin sisters from Canada with girlish voices, bouncing around onstage to the strains of “Everything Is Awesome” from the Lego Movie in tandem with the Lonely Island at the 2015 Oscars.
Love You to Death still trucks in the kind of synth-washed confessionalism that powered Heartthrob. These are tight pop cuts that pack a swift punch before disappearing in a cloud of glitter confetti, showcasing ’90s keyboard sounds and drum machine beats. It’s hard to argue with the economy of a song like lead single “Boyfriend”. The track was inspired by Sara’s relationship with her current girlfriend, who was still embroiled with a male partner when they met and had never dated a woman before. “Boyfriend” bounces, burbles, and shimmers. “You treat me like your boyfriend,” Sara chides, “and trust me like a very best friend.” It’s a love song by a woman for a woman, yes, but like so many of Tegan and Sara’s songs, this fact is beside the point. Human emotions are the same, no matter what team you bat for.
There are some heavier hitters on Love You to Death, too. “B/W/U” addresses the meaning of committment in the newly-minted age of marriage equality (although Sara was married once before, in Canada). “All the girls I loved before/ Told me they signed up for more,” they sing. “Save your first and last dance for me, ‘cause I don’t want a white wedding.” It’s a sweet sentiment — after all, two people who really love each other shouldn’t need any of the accompanying societal trappings, at the end of the day. Piano ballad “100x” feels like a classic torch song; “You were someone I loved, then you were no one at all” is a line that would have comfortably fit on Sainthood. “Dying to Know” plays with the concept of getting in touch with an ex-lover to see how things panned out for them, but its execution feels rote and mandatory — verse, bridge, chorus, verse — through what sounds like Auto-Tune, synths, and a beat that wouldn’t feel out of place on a ’90 Christina Aguilera song.
The more optimistic of Tegan and Sara’s longtime fans posit that this is the cultural moment, finally, that is ready for them. They’ve been making music for public consumption since the 1999 release of their first LP, Under Feet Like Ours, and they’ve been making clear-cut pop songs, albeit formerly with more spare arrangements and acoustic guitars, at least since 2002’s If It Was You. As far as mid-career shifts go, Heartthrob succeeded; it mixed gravitas and pop sensibilities in a way that Love You to Death, with its swiftness and shine, nears.
One can’t help but feel that, in becoming standard-bearers (or, at least, some of the most visible representatives) of the queer experience in mainstream pop radio, some element of complexity has been lost, and that the Quin sisters have a new challenge. The narrative behind 2007’s The Con, as they explained it in an interview with Washington, D.C.’s Metro Weekly in the same year, was “very much about reflecting on getting older, long-term relationships, and the end of things.” In comparison, Love You to Death can at times seem regressive, less poignant. For those who once looked to Tegan and Sara to help them navigate the bumpy roads of adult emotions, it’s a map for terrain they left in the dust a long time ago.
Essential Tracks: “Boyfriend”, “B/W/U”