Date: October 20, 2009
Author: Martyn Clayton
Headline: Tegan and Sara: Sainthood (2009)

Tegan & Sara

Sainthood 3.5


Fixed in the mind as the perpetual late teens that burst onto the scene a decade ago with their debut album Under Feet Like Ours, it's somewhat sobering to realise that Tegan & Sara are less than a year away from their thirtieth birthdays, and that the release of Sainthood puts the Canadian twins on album number six already. Their rise to prominence has been steady and credible, each release and tour adding to their passionate fanbase, and aided by the muscle of major label Sire since 2007's The Con, this album finds them poised on the brink of bastion status among the North American alternative scene. As festival and TV mainstays, loved for their striking visual presence and genuinely offbeat sense of humour, they are approaching ubiquity without ever seeming to get any older.

But while the Quin genes are gifted with these age-defying properties, their music has been undergoing something of a maturation over the past few years. If you trace a line from their tentative emergence as a principally acoustic pairing offering a heartfelt teenage take on Ani DiFranco-style angst to their latest incarnation as electronic power-popsters standing somewhere in a spidery lineage presided over by Cyndi Lauper, in many ways it's as if you were listening to another band entirely. Then again, there is much that has stayed the same. Take the ripped, broken-heart emotion, the everyday imagery of backyards and non-returned phonecalls, the sense of Tegan & Sara being emotional every-people, relating the joys and anguish of love as it is for girls, boys and everyone else – all this remains among the beeps and bloops and the expanding production budget. And perhaps most importantly, so does their knack for turning out a killer chorus.

As with The Con, Death Cab For Cutie's Chris Walla takes the production reins for a tidy-as-you-like exercise in polished restraint, never once burying the duo beneath a pile of overly considered gloss. And while much of the album sounds like a progression, the lyrical trickery of tracks like 'Red Belt' are classic, any-era Tegan & Sara. Opening track 'Arrow', on the other hand, is definitely of the now with its choppy electronics and staccato introduction, a bleeping curveball directed straight at the established fan's tender undercarriage. The sensations it creates are not displeasing though, and by the second chorus everything starts to make sense. 'Don't Rush' continues the disorientation, with a glorious rock-disco choral flounce that unashamedly hooks you and then proceeds to shake you for dear life. The throbbing bassline, slash-heavy guitar and relentless drum groove sounds more like a car crash between The Bee Gees and a broken down '80s hair metal band than the effusions of the tender acoustic songwriters of earlier years. Oddly, it all works, and by the time first single 'Hell' hurtles its solitary way through a night-time cityscape like Avril Lavigne on steroids, you may well be breathless and wondering what happened.

Things do start to mellow, though, and the creeping emotional maturity cognisant with their ages starts to show itself too. 'The Cure' could slide easily onto the tracklisting of their previous outing, with a more world-accepting voice offering the comfort of the “bad fixing itself” and the solace of time, a perspective only rarely found in someone much younger. As on 'Hell', the gear shifts up a trio during 'Northshore' with an incessant pop-punk riff and shouted entreaties not to engage with an angry head. Even adults have their adolescent moments. Perhaps they shouldn't have let off all that steam because parts of the album are left a little wanting. The polished, piano-driven '80s pop of 'Alligator' seems too studious for independent life, the vocals buried beneath too much tinkling and chord uplift. 'Paperback Head' and 'Night Watch' similarly make the album's middle a little less than enthralling. Then again, even the most hardcore Tegan & Sara fan has to admit that there has always been a hit or miss quality about much of their output. Their misses, though, are not disasters; they merely hold back the very good from becoming truly great.

Still, rough edges can do wonders for your charm and Tegan & Sara have always had that in spades. It's poured into the closing track 'Someday', a Fiery Furnaces meets 'Sesame Street' number with too many words for its tune, an intermittent school cheer and a brush the dust off your sneakers and look to the future lyric that sticks a chin in the air and walks proudly on despite the pain. The Quin twins have always been way too active to slip into stultified emotional passivity, and it's partly this energy that has always pushed them to write apart. Despite an attempt at working together as songwriters for Sainthood, most of what's included is once again the product of their separate solitary craft, an approach that's sufficiently unbroken to really require a fix. Together yet apart, there's a whole lot of dichotomies contained in this whole. And here's another in conclusion: the small section of their fanbase that was starting to lose patience with them after The Con may well throw in the towel with Sainthood, but loyal devotees and newcomers will love the playfulness and diversity contained within. Tegan & Sara may never be candidates for musical beatification but they're still pretty righteous.