Week Nineteen: Heartthrob

When I was about eight or nine years old, I used to labour under the illusion that when I was watching Top of the Pops or listening to the top 40 on Radio 1, the songs I was hearing were the work of the people who were performing them. The thing is, at that exact moment in time in the mid 1980s, this was not as far from the truth as it would become a few years later, or perhaps had been a few years before.

Commercial pop music of that time was not short of acts wrote their own material: Pet Shop Boys, Wham!, Duran Duran, A Ha, The Human League. Even Bananarama (and has a pop act ever had a more perfect name?) had co-writing credits, and it may be that I’m being horribly unfair in assuming that this was for writing the lyrics.

At the risk of overgeneralising massively, it seems that sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, the pop world reverted to an earlier model of production whereby pop impresarios assembled groups of young men and women who were easy on the eye and, for the most part, could more or less hold a tune, and then commission teams of professional song-writers to write material for them or else select cuts from pop’s past hits with, it seemed to me, a particular focus on the Bee Gees’ back catalogue. It seems that, by the early 1990s, if you were a musician who dreamed of performing your own material, you picked up a guitar and started an indie band. Pop music was for kids…It was pop’s loss, because for all that it ought to be possible for a middle-aged pop impresario and talented song-writers to create something interesting for their pretty young charges to perform, they almost never do…

All of which is a long way of getting round to the subject of this week’s album, Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob.  Prior to this week, all I knew about them was what I had picked up from a Radio 4 documentary on gender, sexuality and pop music, and the only Tegan and Sara song I’d ever heard was the deliberately mindless earworm they did for the Lego Movie (a film which manages to be a very clever satire on product placement and marketing while simultaneously being chock-full of product placement…) Everything is AWESOME! (on the subject of which, Everything is Adequate, and things are ok…)

So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Heartthrob. But it absolutely is a pure pop record. Simultaneously absolutely of this moment in time and harking back to the pop world of my childhood. It sounds like a record made by people immersed in contemporary pop – people like Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Ke$ha.  But,  in marked contrast with, say Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry,  they appear not only in charge of the music, but of the whole way they present to the world. Because they’re not star-struck teenagers who’ve impressed the judges on The X-Factor but seasoned veterans of two decades standing. And the sound itself appears to be deliberately sitting somewhere between the Max Martin influenced (or Max Martin written) pop that dominates the airwaves, and a kind of 80s electro new wave sound. On the subject of which, the use of live drums, courtesy of Joey Waronker, previously sticksman on Beck’s two best albums, Odelay and Sea Change, was definitely a good move.

Because just as some of those indie musicians seem to end up becoming the professional hit-writers for pop acts when their own careers fizzle out., it would be easy to imagine that Tegan and Sara, fourteen years into their career, might have decided to do the same (they sort of did, as it happens, writing some material for Carly Rae Jepsen). But instead, in 2013, by then in their early 30s, they brought in producer Greg Kurstin and decided to make their own out-and-out pop record.  And they’ve done it rather well.

It’s not really my music though. Aside from a couple of tracks, for all that it feels very sugar-rushy when it’s on, I can’t say I particularly remember the songs. The best of them, to my ears are the stadium-rock manqué anthem I’m Not Your Hero and the album closing Shock to Your System which sounds like their most overt embrace of the 1980s new wave sound and that I could just about imagine having been recorded by a less knowing, ironic version of the Human League. The rest is pleasant and upbeat enough, and not something I would object to if it came on the radio, but there’s nothing that really stands out for me. And one or two tracks, like I Was a Fool, I suspect might eventually come to be every bit as irritating at Everything is AWESOME!

Being unfamiliar with them, I was curious as to what they sounded like before they decided to fully embrace commercial synth-driven pop music and went over to www.rateyourmusic.com which, for all its limitations, is usually a pretty good way of identifying any given artist’s best works. It pointed me to their 2007 album, The Con and it was listening to this record that made me appreciate their appeal. Rather than Taylor Swift or Ke$ha, they sound on this record a lot like a mash-up of The New Pornographers, crossed with a more melodic Sleater Kinney and that other great identical-twin sister fronted band, The Breeders. It’s a record which, like Heartthrob, is packed with hooks, and sticks closely to the rule that nothing need ever be longer than 4 minutes, but which just sounds musically more interesting, less tied to a single formula. Songs like title-track, The Con, Soil Soil or Nineteen are just much more up my street than anything on this record.

A Guardian article I read suggested that Tegan and Sara’s move into the pop world was motivated in part by the alternative rock world’s rather antediluvian attitudes towards their sexuality, quoting an NME review that said they were “quite lovely, even if they do hate cock” and a sense that the pop world is a more open-minded place, notwithstanding Hunter S Thompson’s observation that “the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free”. Now I don’t know if the NME has gone downhill in the last twenty plus years or whether it’s always been like this and I just didn’t notice because this is the sort of comment that would have amused me at 16, but it’s alternative rock’s loss…

Highlights: I’m Not Your Hero, Shock To Your System, though you should really go and listen to The Con…

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