Tegan and Sara isn’t the same band you used to know. Unless you’re a devoted fan or a frequent Stereogum visitor, the last you probably heard of them was almost six years ago when the Canadian twin set made a minor dent in alternative radio with the indie rock sing-a-long “Walking With A Ghost” off their 2004 breakthrough, So Jealous. But after another studio album and multiple headlining tours under their belts, Tegan and Sara have stepped up their sound and songwriting for their sixth album, Sainthood, co-produced by Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who also produced the band’s last album, 2007’s The Con.
While The Con incorporated home-recorded demos from the sisters’ isolated songwriting sessions on their respective coasts (Tegan in Vancouver, Sara in Montreal), the approach also generated a more polarized sound: the album’s songs mostly alternated between Tegan’s rapid-fire power pop and Sara’s moodier, intricate compositions. With Sainthood, however, the band avoided following in the footsteps of OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below and opted for a live band approach to recording, rehearsing for several hours a day before recording the songs. The result is a tighter, more aggressive body of work, evident in the lead single “Hell,” one of three songs co-written with AFI’s bassist Hunter Burgan. “Hell” combines the edge of Paramore with the band’s endearing take on love and heartbreak.
Recording together live instead of from their respective homes succeeded in smoothing out some of that songwriting polarization. Those familiar with the band’s prior catalog will likely recognize which sister wrote which song, but cuts like “Sentimental Tune,” a simple, guitar-driven Sara song that could just as easily been written by Tegan will make it harder for new fans to tell their music apart. Seemingly symbolic of this cohesion is “Paperback Head,” the only song so far to have writing duties split evenly among the two of them.
That’s not to say Tegan and Sara have abandoned what makes them unique — Tegan still churns out songs like “Northshore,” a two minute power chord-fest complete with addictive, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, while Sara still crafts intricate, quirky pop songs, such as the piano-driven and single-worthy “Alligator.” The sisters’ trademark vocal harmonies are also just as prevalent as ever, but are less necessary than before. Tegan’s voice is strong enough to carry the weight of most of her tunes completely solo, like on the pounding “Don’t Rush,” while Sara’s layered vocals, more of an acquired taste than her sister’s, can still run thin on songs like album highlight “On Directing.”
Unlike The Con, whose lyrical content focused on anxious, desperate pleas to change the minds of unrequited lovers, Sainthood takes a calmer, more calculated approach to practicing perfection to win over hearts. While The Con’s final song “Call It Off” ended the album on a defeated note with lines like “Maybe I could have been something you’d be good at,” Sainthood closes with some optimism. “Someday” features MGMT-esque synthesizers and a free-form delivery that weaves hopeful determination into similar lyrics like “Might do something I’ll be proud of someday / Mark my words, I might be something someday.” They may not be saints yet, but with an album like Sainthood, they’ve already done something to be proud of.