On Tegan and Sara’s “Heartthrob”

Tegan and Sara have a new album out, their first since sometimes’ Sainthood. It is an album, so there is a single. For the rest of what I am going to write, I need you to listen to the single and watch the video.

The single has been out for a few months, and I’ve hit it a few times–I would listen to it over and over again and then let it drop out. A few days later I would repeat the process. “Closer” wants me to come back to it. It needs you, but it doesn’t want me all the time. It isn’t an Owl City track or something from the new Taylor Swift. “Closer” doesn’t burn its way into my mind, exhausting me, forcing me to hum couplets in the shower. It just wants me to come back every now again. It wants fidelity and commitment, but it doesn’t want to overstay its welcome.

In essence, “Closer” embodies a tension; it both wants you and wants to forget you.

Heartthrobs, as a unity, is much the same. The throwback, 1980s aesthetic of the video for “Closer” envelops the entire album. Synths and pleas for love bring recall early Madonna–these are descriptions of worlds, of being in the world, but not the world that we all live in. Tegan and Sara draw us between the then and the now, the past and the present.

Thematically, the album is brilliantly coherent. Almost every song presents us with a moment of mourning–the loss of the erotic, or the loss of another, or the loss of a sense of self. When paired with the throwback aesthetic, the sense of mourning is doubled. We can’t go back in time. But we can remember, we can always remember how things were, and that’s where the pain comes from.

The past can well up in a synthetic drum and make us feel the lack in everything.

An example: “How Come You Don’t Want Me

How come you don’t want me now?
Why don’t you want to wait this out?
How come you always lead me on
Never take my call, hear me out?
Why don’t you want to win me now?

I don’t mean to paint the album in this sort of melancholic, black light (although there’s nothing wrong with it, and if that is all Heartthrob managed to do, it would still be a masterpiece.) The strength of the album is in its pure joy. It isn’t just mining the music of the 1980s to discover and miss teenage romances. Instead, it is recalling of those events to get at a pure joy. As I told a friend after a commute where I listened to the whole album: “This is an album of gay party anthems.”

That was the best way of expressing what I thought about the album at the time, and I’m not sure that I can come up with a better summary. Even the slow songs, the sad ones like “Love They Say” or “I Was A Fool” are begging to be club remixed. They want you to jump up and down while they play in the background.

These are songs to make out to. Heartthrobs isn’t an album for headphones; it is an album for beds and backseats and hands all over bodies. It is a soundtrack for something missing replaced by something there–it is a call for joy, for finding love in the moment, for singing and staying all night.

The beauty of the album doesn’t only rest in this thematic work. Sainthood marked the first album where the sisters did not split the work of songwriting. This is to say that pre-Sainthood there were “Tegan songs” and there were “Sara songs” and never the twain would meet. Heartthrobs has cemented their co-writing abilities; where Sainthood felt wildly uneven sometimes, Heartthrobs feels like the coherent work of one mind; it is a miraculous machine of intersubjective creation between all of the parties involved.

Heartthrobs is much the same as the best songs on the album. It has a high layer, a beautiful aesthetic, that touches me. It vibrates. It hums. But the underlayer, the feeling, the excess of the song itself–that drives the whole affair. It is a voice that extends beyond itself–the undercurrent of the album flows outside of its own bound in the same way that the why and try of “How Come You Don’t Want” me exceeds language.

Heartthrobs is a joyous, plaintive cry.

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