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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Doubling Down

Tegan and Sara Go All-In On Pop

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There’s no more challenging dive than the one from a cult perch into the mainstream. Many artists take it only unwittingly, but a few that work hard enough long enough sometimes get to call their shot.

That’s where Canadian twins Tegan and Sara stand with their sixth studio album, Heartthrob, a record that turns from their guitar-driven punk-folk toward bouncy, synth-pop as they crank their ’80s new wave influences to 11. Heartthrob arrives in the wake of 2010’s box set The Complete Recollections: 1999-2010, which offered a natural bookend coinciding with the sisters’ 30th birthday. The stage was set for a sea change, though Sara Quin argues they’ve been building to this from the beginning.

“It’s not like we suddenly decided, ‘Oh let’s just make a pop record,’” she says. “We had been heading in that direction anyway. The music that was influencing me when I was 20 and the music that’s influencing me now aren’t that different, but what I decided to extrapolate and turn into my own thing tended to be more indie-rock. Our idiosyncrasies really directed and framed our music…. [Now] we’re able to access the kind of resources needed to make those kind of records and we’re just better songwriters so we don’t have to rely on those idiosyncrasies and quirks.”

It’s true that their last few albums have featured ever-more-prominent pop hooks, including their last LP, 2009’s Sainthood. Yet this time the sisters knew from the start they wanted to go full-on pop, and they recruited producers with experience in that realm. They wound up working with three: Greg Kurstin (Ke$ha, The Shins), who handled the majority of the album, and Mike Elizondo (Pink, Maroon 5) and Justin Meldal-Johnsen (M83, Neon Trees).

Sara says that she and her sister both agreed they didn’t want to make another record that sounded like fan favorites So Jealous or The Con. “We thought that would potentially be a greater risk than trying to do something that maybe would surprise people or wouldn’t seem like a natural progression,” she says.

Though its subject matter is largely downcast and emotionally wrought—from “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” to “I Was a Fool” and “Now I’m All Messed Up”—the album is bright and bouncy with nostalgic analog synth balanced by crisp modern production. It’s damn catchy, and it’s done better on the charts than any Tegan and Sara release to date.

Tegan and Sara’s leap to pop has been mirrored by their evolving wardrobe: They’ve traded their eccentric art-school garb for a cleaner, more conventionally stylish look. Both changes might have been more difficult if they hadn’t spent the last 14 years continually having to define who they were and what they believed in a world where there’s no compunction about asking such things.

“Tegan and I have struggled with the sexism and the homophobia that is sort of institutionalized in our world and the music industry,” Sara says. “But we’ve also learned not to reduce those signifiers. Like, ‘Let’s not talk about being gay or being women,’ because I just think that’s bullshit too. Those scenes are incredibly important and they are significant parts of what our identity is, but they shouldn’t necessarily mean we can’t reach a bigger audience. So finding a way to be yourself and yet acknowledging these things exist is really important.”

In that respect, Heartthrob is a coming out party. We know that they’re here, they’re queer and we’re used to it. Now Tegan and Sara are stepping out of the box to see what the party is like beyond these four walls.

Tegan and Sara headline the Pabst Theater on Thursday, March 7, with opener Diana. Doors open at 7 p.m.