In the lead up to the release of Tegan and Sara’s seventh record, Love You To Death, and an Australian visit for Splendour in the Grass, JULES LEFEVRE ranks their back catalogue from worst to best.
Ranking Tegan & Sara’s discography is an exercise in compromise. Since the scratchy potential of their debut recording Under Feet Like Ours, each record has been a swift diversion from the last, and in a lot of ways staggeringly different. The band have often remarked that they never want to make the same record twice – which is why when listening back you can hear in a rough order: Lilith Fair-esque folk, Ani DiFranco driven acoustica, frenetic pop punk, and the crystalline sugar pop of today. It makes it difficult to pitch one against the other. What remains however, is Tegan & Sara’s stunning talent as songwriters and arrangers, never shying away from mining their own pain and devastation.
In their mother’s living room in April 1999, the twins set up some microphones and set to work with producer Jared Kuemper. Within the scratchy guitars and the rough clatter of percussion their influences are laid bare: you can almost hear Ani DiFranco in the room on ‘Freedom’. Best of all was the opener, ‘Divided’, which chronicled their difficult sibling relationship (their mother eventually had to send them to a therapist to work out their issues). A year later, they re-recorded most of the tracks for their Vapour Records debut This Business Of Art, which evened out the rough edges and spawned the single ‘My Number’. It’s unmistakably the sound of a band finding their feet, full of slightly odd and playful ideas (‘Superstar’) but also the bright sparks of potential – ‘Hype’.
Tegan and Sara secured The New Pornographers’ John Collins and Vancouver producer David Carswell to produce If It Was You. Their guidance is telling; suddenly the over-enunciated vocals and flinty instrumentation was gone, replaced by a polished, acoustic pop punk outlook. There was a new focus that gave their songs an added New Wave propulsion, and it produced some of the best songs of their career: the dark, banjo driven ‘Living Room’, and the restless ‘Monday Monday Monday’.
Commercially, Sainthood was a disaster. Critically, it didn’t do much better. Hindsight however, renders it in a much more positive light. It was their hardest record to date, relying on tight punk distortion and furiously spat lyrics (‘Northshore’). There are some unquestionably great tracks: ‘Hell’ is a perfect pop punk cut, ‘On Directing’ was darkly intriguing, and ‘Alligator’ remains one of their best songs to date. It was also the first time the twins had ever written together, and the songs are the strongest stems of pop music that they had written. They had the chops, they had just deployed them in the wrong arena.
The musical equivalent of jumping off a cliff, Heartthrob was a monumental shift in sound for Tegan & Sara. True, their affinity and talent for pop had been evident from their earliest of releases, but it had previously been smothered by crunchy guitars and indie production. But with superstar pop producer Greg Kurstin at the helm, Heartthrob was wall to wall sugary synths and chart topping bangers. Released from their indie surroundings, their pop skills flourished on the bombastic ‘Closer’ and ‘I’m Not Your Hero’’. If optimism was a new and slightly uncomfortable fit for them, they made up for it with brilliantly dark and helpless ‘Now I’m All Messed Up’.
Tegan once remarked of The Con that “there was blood all over that record”, and she was right. It was a bloody, bone deep and vicious examination of a relationship’s end; the heartbreak no more obvious than on the profound angst of the title track, a spiralling mess of punk guitars and distortion. If ‘The Con’ was anger, ‘Nineteen’ was utter devastation, with thunderous tom drums and Tegan riding a scream of feedback to tear out her throat in the chorus. Away from the rage, Sara’s ‘Back In Your Head’ was abject pop, and was the runaway hit – and also the first big indication of their future path. Perhaps most touching however, was the closer ‘Call It Off’ – a quiet acoustic folk ode to the final hours of a relationship. If the individual tracks were brilliant, what prevents The Con from being their best to date is the lack of thematic flow as it ricochets from Tegan’s fury to Sara’s calm, resulting in a sometimes emotional jarring tracklisting.
There’s a line on the fourth track of So Jealous, ‘I Know I Know I Know’: “stick your heart inside my chest/ keep it warm here while we rest.” Read cold, it reads almost ridiculously angsty, overtly exaggerated. But when delivered in the context, with Tegan’s tightened yell over the thrumming bass and rushing guitars, it will tear your heart out.
So much of So Jealous hinges on questions: Do you love me? Why isn’t this working? Can I stand you anymore? Can I stand myself? ‘Where Does The Good Go’? There are never any answers to these – if the twins knew they probably wouldn’t have written an album about them – but their inner turmoil is absorbing. Musically, it was their most cohesive record – this was their acoustic pop punk perfected, and their brief flirtations with electric guitars on tracks like ‘I Bet It Stung’ and ‘Walking With A Ghost’ were excellent. Thanks, in part, to a high profile cover by The White Stripes, ‘Walking With A Ghost’ was the pivot point in their career propelling them to alt indie stardom.