“Nobody hurts you like me,” Tegan and Sara sing on the opening track from their eighth album. It’s a twist on a classic pop sentiment — a little sadistic, a little sly – floated over glistening disco synths and rising-tide drum burble, and it’s a perfect T&S moment. The Canadian sister duo have been subtly putting their stamp on different styles of music for coming on two decades, first as a clever, self-deprecating folk act (suggesting Ani DiFranco refugees with a Go-Go’s jones), and then as a consistently thrilling indie-pop band, particularly on 2005’s hook-fest master-class So Jealous. Their latest continues a transformation into full-on dance-pop that began with their last LP, 2013’s excellent Heartthrob, and its euphorically horny hit “Closer.”
Once again Tegan and Sara are collaborating with co-writer Greg Kurstin, best known for his work with Adele, Pink and Kelly Clarkson. He helps them create big, splashy songs that thrive on intricate intimacies – tangled love, barbed honesty, hard-won empowerment — with lyrics implying not only romance but friendship, familial bonds and artistic partnership as well. “Boyfriend” has a track that recalls Madonna’s first album and bizarre-love-triangle lyrics that evoke New Order; “White Knuckles” builds from pensive pianos and a dolefully rumbling beat into a cloud-riding chorus as they sing about “love twisted up like a chain or a nail” and “excuses for the bruises we wear.” Sometimes the emotional nuances they work into their late-nights can be revelatory – against the breathless rush of “Stop Desire” they sing “right where I want you, back against the wall,” then offer a heartwarming addendum, “trust when I’m honest, never let you fall.” It’s the kind of want you can build a world inside.
The songs here don’t quite hit the same level of high-gloss overdrive they managed last time out, a problem for a band that prizes songwriting over the kind of vocal gymnastics that can turn a so-so synth-pop tune into an uncorked geyser of catharsis (elsewhere the wan piano ballad “100x” shows their limitations as confessional quiet stormers). Still, the core appeal of Tegan and Sara has been the same since they were strumming acoustic guitars in coffee shops. It’s a lonely life out there; by singing in tandem, they create their own community: whether desire takes them to heaven or hell, they’ll always go together.