Here’s the thing about Tegan and Sara: on a fundamental level, their music has never really changed. It’s been 20 years since the Canadian twin duo made their debut with 1999’s Under Feet Like Ours, yet the songs on that record bear the same confessional, anguished style of 2009’s Sainthood or 2016’s Love You to Death. There are differences in production – the pair have shifted, over the course of nine albums, from a mostly acoustic sound to glamorous synth-pop in the style of Swedish musician Robyn – and lyrical content, with less youthful angst and more romantic paeans; but in truth, the Quin sisters have managed throughout their career to keep hold of their idiosyncratic songwriting style.
That consistency of character is surprising, considering how much has changed for Tegan and Sara over the course of the past two decades. When they first started making music commercially, both faced a music industry mired in homophobia and misogyny. While the late ’90s and early 2000s saw a swell of chart success for politically vocal female-fronted rock bands, it was still by no means easy for two young gay women to break through, especially with the type of emo-inflected rock the Quins were making. They persisted, though, getting more and more commercially minded with each release and becoming one of the flagship bands on Neil Young’s Vapor Records label. In many ways, the pair were positioning themselves as exemplars of a certain kind of indie rock dream: the DIY punk duo that, through doggedness, hard work and sheer force of will, became superstars. With 2013’s Heartthrob, they pushed even further, ditching the finely honed emo-pop for a more mainstream sound.
In that time, the Quin twins never really let go of the brutally honest vein that runs through their lyrics – the X factor, the Tegan and Sara-ness, that continues to endear the pair to their fans. As such, the concept of the duo’s ninth studio record, Hey, I’m Just Like You, while a little off kilter on paper – a set of rerecordings of the duo’s teenage demos, given the same high-gloss sheen as Heartthrob and Love You to Death – makes perfect sense. Compilations of B-sides and rarities are often fun to listen to because they provide a look at an artist in gestation. But if Tegan and Sara arrived fully formed musically, shouldn’t their archived demos get the same treatment as anything else in their catalogue?
For the most part, Hey, I’m Just Like You makes the case for a resounding “yes”. There is little that’s embarrassing or half-baked to be found across the album’s 12 songs; many of these tracks are as good as the band’s recent output, showcasing the same kind of melodic ingenuity. And while Tegan and Sara did make minor lyrical and structural changes, the early demos – some of which are available in bootlegged form on the internet – confirm that these songs, for the most part, have retained their original hooks, melodies and lyrics.
In fact, the only hint that these songs are the work of teenagers is the record’s “us versus the world” ethos, a hallmark of teen pop from Paramore to Billie Eilish. All these songs feature, in one way or another, a proclamation from one of the Quin sisters that they don’t fit in, or that the world doesn’t understand them. Take, for example, the chorus of “Please Help Me”:
What if I don’t feel like I belong?
What happens to my head if I go beyond?
What if I become all the horrible things I swore that I would never be?
Lyrics such as these are commonplace on Hey, I’m Just Like You. A quick scan of the track list, which features song titles such as “Keep Them Close ’Cause They Will Fuck You Too” and “All I Have to Give the World Is Me”, gives the impression there is something unformed about the album. But the melodrama doesn’t detract from the record’s enjoyable qualities. These words, written with teenage life-or-death passion, bring back some of the charming shagginess that was cut when the pair made their transition to glitzy pop.
One of the album’s highlights is “Don’t Believe the Things They Tell You (They Lie)” – a paranoid rager of a synth-pop track about Tegan’s shame at keeping her sexuality a secret. “The thing my mother told me / Was that everyone would love me,” she sings, “But in the dark I feel so lonely / I’m numb.” These lyrics carry an obviousness that is typical of emo music, but producer Alex Hope gives them weight and gravity when she sends a harsh buzz-saw synth careening down the middle of the track, followed by an electric guitar solo. It’s a canny move, one that acknowledges the significance of the feelings in Tegan’s lyrics without allowing sadness fatigue to set in.
Even better is “You Go Away and I Don’t Mind”, a frustrated limp of a kiss-off that alternates defiance – “You go away, go away / Well, I’ll be fine” – and neediness – “Bye, bye, bye / I still want you”. It’s lighthearted and giddy, the rare break-up song that allows for stubbornness as well as sadness and frustration. It would sit well with any of the highlights from Heartthrob.
Hope, who first garnered acclaim for producing Perth pop singer Troye Sivan’s debut album, Blue Neighbourhood, does an admirable job of bringing Tegan and Sara’s archives into 2019. Songs such as “I’ll Be Back Someday” and “Hold My Breath Until I Die” retain traces of the band’s emo roots but Hope downplays them in the production – she seems to have a shrewd awareness that you can get away with a lot more in pop music than you can in rock. The camp aesthetics here – warped ’80s synths, acoustic guitar interludes, the aforementioned and impeccably timed guitar solo – lend a glossy varnish and provide insulation against criticisms of the record’s remnant teenager-ness. Some – admittedly cute – lyrical clunkers, such as “Racing through the streets till we fly / Gold-coloured prisms of light”, are easier to swallow because it feels as though Tegan and Sara are in on the joke.
In the hands of another artist, this kind of teen demo revivalism could seem indulgent. But part of Tegan and Sara’s rationale for rerecording this material was their realisation that these songs are far more radical than they had thought – this music is not just the therapeutic output of their teenage years. As it stands, there are very few broadly accessible narratives about queer relationships, particularly lesbian relationships, in popular music. The ones that do exist, such as Tyler, the Creator’s Scum Fuck Flower Boy or Vampire Weekend’s song “Diplomat’s Son”, approach the topic in hindsight – they are written by adult songwriters reminiscing about lost or unrequited love. Hey, I’m Just Like You, though sung by 39-year-olds, is definitively a document about young romance and coming out. Even on songs such as “All I Have to Give the World Is Me” – not the most artful expression of self-love, with its painfully earnest proclamation, “All I have to give this world is me, and that’s it / All I have to show this world is me, and that’s it / Just me” – this record feels like a very necessary part of a still-emerging canon.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 5, 2019 as "Twin-win situation".
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