If you’re hoping for a return to the bold and thrilling musical adventurism of pre-Heartthrob Tegan And Sara, we’ve got bad news for you: The duo are remaining squarely in the mainstream pop arena, at least for the foreseeable future. You may long for the days of The Con, but the sisters have planted a flag in Taylor Swift’s territory, and they’re not leaving until it’s been conquered 10 ways from Sunday. Love You To Death is an album that adheres rigorously to a formula, and while it’s hard to imagine anyone doing that formula much more effectively, it’s also ultimately a bit dispiriting to hear artists this talented force their formerly roaming muses into a single mold, albeit a glossy and appealing one.
It’s a conundrum writer Gabe Delahaye labeled “The Curse Of Being Very Good”: When you’ve set a consistent and repeatedly high bar of artistic achievement, anything that doesn’t look like another evolution starts to resemble treading water. Listening to this new collection of heartfelt retro ’80s gems (which ironically also sounds very of the minute, given how fully current mainstream pop has embraced that era’s sounds), it seems that Tegan And Sara could continue to churn out prefab pop hits in perpetuity: verse, chorus, repeat, bridge, chorus, big coda. Every song plays out in almost identical patterns and structures, a fine-tuning of the hitmaker recipe the Canadian siblings first proved adept at on Heartthrob, harnessing the earworm power of their ambitious pop-rock melodies while stripping away the art-damaged explorations that made the previous records so indelible. But rather than continue the one-and-done tradition of the past (So Jealous’ acoustic churn, The Con’s dark wanderlust, the pop-punk edge of Sainthood), Love You To Death digs even deeper into throwback electro-pop. It’s very good, but it’s also a little predictable.
Lyrically, however, the Quins are on stronger ground here than Heartthrob. The “you” and “they” pronouns now include “she” and “her,” with Tegan And Sara acknowledging gender in their songs of love, loss, and romantic tribulation. As should be the case, the increased specificity makes the themes and emotions more universal and relatable, not less. This change is most notable on “Boyfriend,” where Sara unpacks the wounded desires familiar to anyone who’s been with someone that wasn’t willing to make a relationship official. “Kiss me like your boyfriend,” they sing, about a girl who is still ostensibly straight (and involved): “I don’t wanna be your secret anymore.” Similarly, “B/W/U” is an affectionate and spritely ode to a love who doesn’t “need a white wedding,” and sounds like a more sexually secure Men At Work.
Musically, everything here is of a piece, and that piece was constructed sometime during the middle of the Reagan administration. With its exploding snares and reverse reverb, “Faint Of Heart” could pass for Debbie Gibson fronting the Eurythmics. “Stop Desire,” the catchiest song on the record, takes its Duran Duran synths and minimal drum machine and creates a dance-floor rave-up worthy of Kelly Clarkson. Tracks like “Dying To Know” and “White Knuckles” add throbbing, slinky R&B to the mix, with bass-heavy beats and layers of keys and harmonies swirling together. The closer, “Hold On To The Night,” could be a poppy companion piece to the last song on Sainthood, with that tune’s yearning logorrhea transformed here into a streamlined minimalism, but no less attuned to the searching need of how to get through each day.
Love You To Death is an apt title for an album so full of effortlessly addicting pop that nonetheless exhausts a sole musical formula in every permutation. Producer Greg Kurstin keeps everything adhering to the rulebook for contemporary radio hit parades, and you can’t help but wish the Quins were a little more willing to break those rules, as they have in the past. Tegan And Sara have proven they’re superlative practitioners of the style, so it might be time to try and push it forward. With its simple piano and gorgeous harmonies, “100x” comes close, tweaking vocal effects without sounding kitschy or generic. Love is still the answer to the questions posed by their soulful, rich voices, but it’s a love that sounds familiar.