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

12/23/2009 4:00 AM |

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.

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