Albums of the Decade: Tegan and Sara's The Con 

For years, Tegan and Sara were the kind of band I felt I should enjoy, but never quite understood. Through most of the 2000s, Tegan and Sara existed on the periphery of my musical consciousness: they had what I thought was a predictably girlish sound and the kind of passionate niche audience that seemed inexplicable.  Public awareness hit its peak with 2004's "Walking With a Ghost" [from So Jealous]--a catchy, staccato number that started to make its way onto friends' year-end mixes, but never really caught my attention.

In the early days of 2007, something changed: while employed at a label involved with the band's releases, I was called into someone's office for the first listen of their forthcoming album, The Con.  By this time, I had a working definition of the typical Tegan and Sara song structure: jangly guitars, understated choruses, and a wry perspective on relationships. But The Con was the first indicator that there was to be a new era in Tegan and Sara�€™s sound. After enlisting the help of Chris Walla as co-producer, they filled in their backing band with Matt Sharp from the Rentals, AFI�€™s Hunter Bergan, and Death Cab For Cutie�€™s Jason McGerr.  The expected result was a more lush, marketable pop sound.

None of these facts prepared me for how shockingly different The Con felt in just its first notes.  Quiet harmonies and softly upsetting lyrics set the tone: "I married in the sun/ against the stone of buildings built before you and I were born/  Into my heart confusion grows against/ the muscles felt so long to control against the pull of one magnet to another."

That The Con is essentially a breakup album is obvious from these first words, but gone is the lyrical simplicity and basic melodies that made their earlier releases seem all too accessible. In their place is a complex swell of ideas centered around family, aloneness, adulthood, and yes, love. If �€œI Was Married�€� feels strangely dark, even in its sweetness, the second track, �€œRelief Next To Me,�€� begins with a keyboard melody that cements its status as a pop song. �€œI miss you now/ I guess like I should�€™ve missed you then,�€� sings Sara Quin as her sister provides vocal punctuation.

It�€™s at this point that the Quin sisters begin to establish a real sense of self within their own songs, and this is what starts to bring The Con into sharp focus.  �€œRelief Next To Me�€� is thick with a solitary anxiety that carries throughout Sara�€™s tracks on the album.  By contrast, Tegan�€™s songs are rooted in a different kind of isolation; they mark her first experiences as a songwriter documenting newfound singledom. The album�€™s title track, heavy on synths and featuring a piercing guitar progression, is also its greatest departure from the band�€™s previous work. At the same time, �€œThe Con�€� is deeply personal in a manner that feels intrusive. In any pop song, it�€™s easy to expect a singalong chorus; it�€™s much more difficult to engage in that chorus when it centers around the line �€œNobody likes to / but I really like to cry.�€�  �€œThe Con�€� is an eye-opener of a track, avoiding cliché and going straight for the jugular. On first listen, it�€™s as undeniably discomfiting as it is catchy.

That sense of unsettling but perfectly structured sentiment runs through the whole of heavy on synths and a piercing guitar progression, as each sister unravels a different perspective on a similar theme.  �€œKnife Going In�€� feels like just that, as Sara continues to explore the idea of what it means to feel alone in the midst of a committed relationship.  Her songs here are sparse, delicate affairs, filling space with careful words and keyboard melodies.

click to enlarge teganandsara_thecon_cover.jpg
It�€™s not until �€œBack In Your Head�€� that Sara gets her own pop single, and she earns it well with an infectious four-note piano part and overt pluckiness that ties together the sweetest of anxieties.  Here, the basic two-line chorus that Tegan and Sara are known for shines through, this time with an undeniable edge: �€œI just want back in your head/ I�€™m not unfaithful, but I�€™ll stray when I get a little scared.�€�

Where most of Sara�€™s songs feel perfectly restrained, Tegan�€™s carry an extra dose of energy, often cramming words into otherwise spare song structures.  �€œAre You Ten Years Ago�€� is a well-contained lyrical ramble wrapped around a mechanical drumbeat, resulting in a sound that embodies the feeling her words are meant to convey. It�€™s one of the most mentally anguished tracks on the record, and it�€™s that wordy repetition that makes it work.

�€œHop a Plane�€� takes that heartache and twists it into a rhythmic rock number, a song that is celebratory in execution if not in context.  Tegan is plaintive but matter-of-fact in her subject matter: �€œAll I need to hear is that you�€™re not mine.�€�  This brand of loneliness makes obvious song fodder, but there�€™s an undeniably compelling nakedness about it.  Elsewhere on the album, she toys with various lines of communication to indicate uncertainty �€“ writing emails or texts in �€œThe Con�€�, the absence of telephone calls in �€œSoil, Soil�€�, the temptations of reaching out in �€œFloorplan,�€� and later, a call placed to indicate finality in �€œCall It Off.�€�

The struggle with identity switches gears with an infusion of history on both �€œNineteen�€� and �€œLike O Like H,�€� where the concept of growing older is viewed through separate frameworks--the ending of a relationship and the allusion to family conflict.  One direct, the other obtuse, these songs again represent distinct but parallel paths of two different songwriters.  �€œNineteen�€� is another frenetic rock track, juxtaposing a relationship�€™s early days with its aftermath, perfectly capturing pent-up emotion in stark lyrical twists: �€œLove me/ You were all mine/ Love me/ I was yours, right?�€�

On �€œLike O Like H,�€� Sara again takes a sense of teenage isolation and spins it from a different perspective: with stilted yelps, she uses the all-too-familiar memory of growing pains to communicate social anxiety.  �€œBurn Your Life Down�€� is one of the album�€™s most melodic tracks, with layered synths and an ease that indicates the band�€™s �€œnew direction�€� is their most comfortable yet.

The Con ends with a pair of companion songs, �€œDark Come Soon�€� and �€œCall It Off�€�, both of which (as their titles indicate all too well) are the album�€™s bleakest moments.  �€œDark Come Soon�€� is an understated piece that slams unexpectedly into its chorus: �€œSo what? I lied / I lie to me, too.�€� It again brings the notion of loneliness to the forefront with a call to action: �€œEveryone I love / I need you now.�€�  It�€™s a difficult grappling, and an attempt to bring back interpersonal relationships to the theme of solitude that Sara�€™s songs have taken throughout the record.

�€œCall It Off,�€� the acoustic closing track (and later, the album�€™s final single), serves as the nail in the coffin for Tegan�€™s set of songs. The struggle to communicate comes to a close, and the result is the album�€™s best song.  �€œMaybe I would�€™ve been something you�€™d be good at,�€� it laments, perfectly encapsulating the notion that at the end of any relationship, the lack of certainty is what hits hardest.

As I sat in a marketing office in 2007, these fourteen tracks passed by in a remarkably short 37 minutes, and something about me felt wildly different when it was over. I felt stabbed in the heart by �€œThe Con,�€� charmed by �€œBack In Your Head,�€� nostalgic about �€œNineteen,�€�  and haunted by �€œCall It Off.�€�  As someone who�€™d never been floored by this band�€™s previous work, I also found myself ill-equipped to explain my sudden change of heart. How do you explain an album�€™s gripping nature by virtue of the addition of synthesizers and Chris Walla?

Upon The Con�€™s release, Pitchfork infamously noted that Tegan and Sara would no longer be known as �€œtampon rock,�€� an unsavory reference to that niche audience the band had already worked hard to win over.  What this meant was simply that with The Con, Tegan and Sara gave the public a chance to finally move away from references to their sexuality, their quirky personas, and their �€œtwin factor.�€�  The difference is, in part, a richer and more palatable sound.  More importantly, though, The Con is a vivid emotional landscape, and the songwriters�€™ individuality shines through in a new and wildly compelling way.

�€œI want to draw you a floorplan of my head and heart,�€� the opening line of �€œFloorplan�€� notes, and at the end of the day, that�€™s exactly what The Con turned out to be.  It�€™s a remarkably structured, affecting look into the way we interact with, and shy away from, each other as people, and it manages to be as toe-tapping as it is heartbreaking. I fell in love with The Con in a stuffy old office on that first listen, and I haven�€™t been able to shake off that feeling since.

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