Canadian sisters Tegan and Sara first won over people’s hearts with the stripped-down, emotionally compelling “Walking With A Ghost” off of 2004′s So Jealous. The charm of the song was largely derived from its simplicity; a repeating chord pattern on the guitar and lyrics that nevertheless caught your attention despite it basically being a one-minute song played a couple of times over. It also had attitude driven by their punk beginnings. Nearly a decade later, the sisters have traded in that attitude for glossier, synth-heavy pop that adds to their sound but ultimately feels devoid of the group’s signature dynamism.
In a recent interview with Andy Samberg, the sisters cited examples of their personal heartthrobs as Joey McIntyre, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper, all who make an apt foundation for the record. The imagery and content of the songs indicate the type of teenage emotion poured over the people on the posters that once hung in your bedroom. It feels as significant as anything at the time but lacks any genuine depth. On “Closer,” that emotion is effectively translated into a fast and danceable track. According to Tegan, the song is about “a time when we got closer by linking arms and walking down our school hallway or talked all night on the telephone about every thought or experience we’d ever had.” Like the rest of the album, it wears its emotions on its sleeve, but here the girls charge through with a quick-hitting, catchy chorus.
The common formula is stripped-down, more vocal-centric verses that generally kick into louder, sped-up, driving choruses. “How Come You Don’t Want Me” is stylistically a departure, dabbling more in an electro-pop element that’s also found on “Now I’m All Messed Up.” “Goodbye, Goodbye” follows in a similar, upbeat vein, but the real issue that persists is, despite emotionally laden lyrics and titles like “I’m Not Your Hero” and “Now I’m All Messed Up,” the music continually comes off as light.
Through the production, Tegan and Sara’s individual personalities are lost behind a wall of overdubs whereas their presence has typically been at the forefront of previous albums. What they’re singing about sounds deeply personal but is packaged in a cold, generic way. “Drove Me Wild” is a well-crafted pop song but is so drowned in synths and added vocals by the time it reaches the chorus that it might as well be anyone.
Making pop music with broad appeal is not easy, and Tegan And Sara have done well to pack Heartthrobs with lots of it. There’s plenty of excitement throughout and songs that will get stuck in your head for days, but generally what feels like it’s missing is the sisters themselves.