Tegan and Sara
egan and Sara’s fourth full-length, The Con, begins with a glossy, nostalgic elegy to a marriage, a vocal duet timed to a walk down the aisle—and it’s completely out of place with what follows. But this works because “I Was Married” is the credit sequence to an otherwise messy drama propelled by two haughty, terrified, confused characters. Who gets to confess here, and when, is a question the listener may have asked on the sisters’ previous releases. But before, each of their love stories were gracefully enmeshed. Here, it’s hard not to read every track as a tribute to one particular and tumultuous event (which I’m going to propose happened to Tegan). So, most potently, the con or cons involved are immersed in a battle of push-pull spanning months or years. There is less of the rock straight talk of 2004’s So Jealous, simply because the situations are written in more complicated terms. Whether this always makes a great song is another issue. To a T&S fan, a journey from simpler relationships to more complex ones also means one from accessibility to ambiguity.
Produced by Death Cab guitarist and sometime engineer Christopher Walla, this album does maintain much of the duo’s unified voice, or sound. Despite the fact that Tegan and Sara have, sonically, very distinct voices, metaphorically their voice has brought us dozens of clever, sometimes ironically upbeat punk bon-bons that depend on Sara’s frothy, gorgeous cords and her sister’s weathered, fierce counterpart. Walla’s presence donates slightly more guitars by volume, gnashing synthesizers, and a few stock melodies, especially the painfully boring “Hop A Plane” and “Soil, Soul,” where we hear the twinkling guitar and piano arpeggios that Death Cab brought to Plans. The latter is too short to be very memorable, and like “Plane,” which precedes it, leans on someone else’s sound.
What’s more interesting, naturally, is when the band and the producer’s experience and taste really fuse—in all, about four times. “Burn Your Life Down” showcases Tegan’s rusty, raspy vocals and an elegant cat-and-mouse game between guitar and keys. Appearing to talk to herself, Tegan narrates a middle-of-the-night promise to change—change or betterment is a huge theme on the album—as the diplomacy required for long-term relationships is explored, analyzed, tossed, retrieved. Elsewhere there were successful choices made to bring the unfinished quality of Tegan’s voice to the other instrumentation. Sara’s cotton-candy touch on songs like “My Number” from 2000’s This Business of Art is virtually gone. On the haunting rock ballad “Nineteen” Tegan duets with herself, and on the excellent “The Con,” the synths are given her brassy quality and the guitars her acerbic edge.
But there are too many sturdy, banal rhythms and predictable melodies to make all of the fourteen tracks stand out, and even the recurring themes of darkness and intimacy have, by the end of the album, not much new ground to cover. The final track is a delightful wrap-up about a break-up, perhaps the “marriage” to the “con” so frequently in question. But even this song seems to be missing a couple of ribs, its Police-y guitar melody too rote; the chorus, “Maybe I could’ve been something you’d be good at,” while evocative, still falls flat. Listening to Tegan and Sara’s earlier albums, it’s clear they made do with an underdeveloped, ’90s-infused production and still shone. But the pared-down moments of The Con seem to long for the clusterfuckedness of the album’s meatier tracks, and for the most part, rightly so. As a reminder of the duo’s ten-year reign, and as a piece of it, this album both gains and loses strength.