It’s often overlooked that pop is short for popular, ergo popular music being something a great number of people listen to, unashamedly, and derive a great deal of pleasure from, equally unashamedly. That this needs clarification shows how it’s become a loaded term, confounded with pointless product and mindless marketing, and should never have become a pejorative one. Good pop, in its many guises, makes sense to people, and that alone gives it value despite some (and maybe especially music writers) hanging other labels on it for leftfield kudos. Dubstep, techno, chillwave, electro, hip hop: guess what? All very popular, sharing a common ancestor in human expression and connection.
A cursory listen to Heartthrob, identical twin sisters Tegan & Sara Quin’s seventh album, may initially curl the upper lips of those who find pop a dirty word, along with many of those who had justifiably high expectations following 2009’s mini-classic Sainthood. Gone is that LP’s scratchy and taut take on power pop, its idiosyncratic lyricism sanded down. Instead, in come kaleidoscopic ’80s influences – burbling synths now the glue holding more conventional songs together. The title’s a dead giveaway; Heartthrob is a more mainstream attempt to capture the febrile concerns of saccharine teenage infatuation. As such, previous producer Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla is shown the door and in comes unabashed high-end production, including a songwriting team credited as having worked with Dido, P!nk and Maroon 5.
Such moves will doubtless be used as a stick to beat the duo with, as if there’s some shame in aiming for melodic and outré pop, the very thing – albeit previously with more acceptable labelling – that they’ve done so well over a 14 year career anyway. Yet the changes in approach do justify a raised eyebrow, not for abandoning perceived indie credentials but for the manifest change in work ethic. Hard work previously scored incremental victories; each home-grown album more accomplished than the last, each fan painstakingly won by tireless touring since 2000. Maybe now the mortgage or the pension are concerns, maybe there’s record company pressure, or maybe touring with stadium heavyweights like The Killers have made the girls head uncompromisingly for maximum exposure. Ultimately, that’s the decision, and the middle of the road is inextricably linked with it.
It’s the easiest place in which to get run over. At first though, there’s seemingly no damage done. Lead single Closer is a ripper, gleefully riding day-glo synth, self-conscious bleeps and big drums that are just the right side of hammy. A sugar rush song about the headiness of a new romance, its appeal remains cutesy rather than lascivious, despite lyrics like “all I‘m dreaming lately is how to get you underneath me”. It’s Wilson Phillips by way of Phoenix, and its appeal is undeniable. Goodbye, Goodbye goes by with gusto and Drove Me Wild picks up the motoring metaphor baton from where Jane Wiedlin left it in 1988’s Rush Hour, with a similar musical treatment to similar irresistible effect. Cribbing from decades past might not allow Heartthrob to be subversive like the very best pop, but it’s often exciting all the same.
However, making music with a consciously wide remit is deceptively difficult – it often resorts in playing to platitudes, and it’s a pitfall the record can’t avoid in its more earnest moments. Spinning out teenage preoccupations is fine, but a lack of charisma means there’s neither nostalgia nor winsome appeal to engage non-teens, the record then seeming no deeper than your average puddle. No prizes for guessing the self-pitying concerns of songs titled I Was A Fool, Now I’m All Messed Up and How Come You Don’t Want Me, and all have lyrics about as nuanced as their titles to boot. It makes Heartthrob destined for teenage girls’ bedrooms, lodged between Taylor Swift and Katy Perry discs. That of course is partly the aim, so it’s still a success, albeit one that comes in spite of lyrics that are often so banal it seems difficult to imagine it taking a team of people to write them.
Where Sainthood was an often jagged, itchy and compelling take on power pop, Heartthrob recasts it in smooth, technicolor hues. It’s dreadfully overproduced, and whilst that in itself is no barrier to success – artistic, commercial or both – it leads it to slip into the anodyne too often. Being sniffy about labels and approaches is one thing and will hamper it in some circles but, like many victims of the cut-throat mainstream pop game it wants to join, Heartthrob falls down more often than not because the songs capture the immaturity of its target audience a little too well. Like a teenage crush, its appeal can pass just as quickly as it starts.