The market for ‘80s-aping pop hasn’t been this crowded since — well, since the ‘80s, and that’s partially Tegan and Sara Quin’s fault. The duo had always had a knack for writing earworm melodies, the kind that crawl into your brain stem and start paying rent. When they decided to pursue their wildest pop dreams with their fantastic 2013 LP Heartthrob, their songwriting changed at a fundamental level. Instead of writing lyrics that were elliptical and ripe for analysis by their small group of devoted fans, they aimed for clarity and emotional concision.
Heartthrob’s ambition and polish helped the duo reach a whole new audience, and it was just as impactful in the studios and writing rooms where pop music springs to life. Everyone from Taylor Swift and Katy Perry to Carly Rae Jepsen has laid a wreath at Heartthrob’s altar, and the album’s influence on records like 1989 and E•MO•TION is well-documented at this point. "You would go into the studio with an artist and you’d be like, ‘What are you into lately?’" said pop writing vet (and Tegan and Sara collaborator) Jack Antonoff in an April BuzzFeed profile of the Quins. "And they’d be like, ‘Heartthrob.’ What kinda vibe do you wanna do? ‘Heartthrob.’"
When I revisit Heartthrob now, I’m not captivated by the lustre of the synth lines or the pristine drum programming. The album sticks in your craw because the writing is economic, confident, and revealing. Think about the way the first lines of "Drove Me Wild" tell you everything you need to know about the subject of a powerful infatuation: "When I think of you, I think of your skin / Golden brown from the sun / Your arms outstretched, your hair cut shorter than it’d been / But still blowing in the wind." You can imagine some cool, charismatic figure sitting in a convertible’s passenger seat, begging to take the top down and let the engine roar. I’ve known that person. I’ve wanted to be that person. (I'm not that person.)
It's an undeniably queer album
On their new album Love You to Death, the Quins and veteran pop producer Greg Kurstin (handling every track here, up from seven on Heartthrob) run back that album’s concise, sparkling New Wave sound, and the few additions — a slight tilt toward the dynamics of festival-tent EDM, some lamentable pitch-shifting out of DJ Snake’s playbook — aren’t glaring enough to throw you off. You can chalk it up to the kind of writing described above: succinct phrases burrow into your head, even as they take on much greater meaning within larger contexts. Songs take emotional turns on a dime, pivoting from funny to tender and bruised to brassy before you can figure out what’s going on. It’s an undeniably queer album, and it’s explicit about that queerness in a way that’s unprecedented in the Quins’ discography. (Even Heartthrob’s most direct songs shied away from the usage of gendered pronouns.) "Boyfriend" is a playful, frothy disco romp about a love triangle complicated by the closet; "BWU" glorifies a lifetime commitment that’s flourishing outside the bounds of marriage. (It sounds a little like a pop version of Sufjan Stevens’ "To Be Alone With You," another song about love and the intensity it can achieve.)
It’s taken Tegan and Sara time to figure out how to reckon with their sexuality in their art, a process that’s surely familiar to many queer people. When it came up on songs like The Con’s opener "I Was Married," a refutation of bigots who like to characterize homosexuality as unnatural, it was thinly veiled by poetry: "They seem so very scared of us / I look into the mirror / for evil that just does not exist." It bubbled beneath the surface of their music even as they built a reputation as honest, open role models and willing activists. (Who else called out Tyler, the Creator’s homophobia at the peak of his powers?) They may have been less direct in their songs, but they were out musicians who were loving and taking care of themselves in plain sight. Who would ask for more? Living a healthy, happy life can feel like a form of quiet rebellion in its own right, even when you’re not a highly visible musician. By writing songs like "Boyfriend" and "BWU," they’re going above and beyond, and they should be lauded for it.
The music is honest and compassionate
There’s more to Love You to Death than the personal and progressive. Its maturity is striking: self-examination and anxiety rub up against giddy confessions and sweet nothings the way two contradictory thoughts can hang out in your head at the same time. Dissatisfied and frustrated, opener "That Girl" is a grown-up version of The Con’s jingling highlight "Back in Your Head." "White Knuckles" and "100x" pull the scab off Tegan and Sara’s own bond, which has endured its share of turmoil; "Dying to Know" unearths the pain and longing that drives curiosity about an ex’s life and whereabouts, even as it sounds like a roller-rink anthem in the making. "Stop Desire" takes overheated lust — a Tegan and Sara specialty, believe it or not — and sticks it in a flash freezer, turning it into a celebration of unconditional trust.
These are songs that recognize the value of honesty, communication, and compromise. Consider the remarkable bridge of "U-Turn," a window into a relationship on the brink of failure: "Every time I think I hurt you, all I have to do is think through / What I want, list your virtues, / Apologize, I don’t deserve you." Love You to Death might pull you in with its shimmering production and shiny vocal treatments, but this is how it makes you stay. It’s the product of two artists who’ve been around long enough to know what they want, how to get it, and what matters.
Love You to Death is available on major streaming services now.