8/26/2007

The Con.

A lot of the time, I'm the type of person who prefers a band's early stuff, the stuff they wrote and recorded back when they were still most in tune with the original inspiration that led them to get together. When they explore that initial idea completely and start looking for new directions in which to pursue their muse, I often lose interest to at least some extent. Things just don't sound as passionate and full of purpose anymore. On the other hand, sometimes it's only once a band starts exploring other avenues that they fully come into their own. Some bands don't really hit their stride until they do start mixing various other influences into their original style. Refused is a good example of this, as are My Chemical Romance (so far); with both of these bands, it's their most recent (in Refused's case, their final) album that I like the most.

I could say this about Tegan And Sara, but it would sort of be a lie. You see, I never started listening to them until their fourth album, "So Jealous", was released. Apparently, their first three albums were standard acoustic-guitar singer/songwriter albums--that's what word of mouth has told me, at least. I loved the emotional, electric pop of "So Jealous" so much that I chose not to work backwards into their catalog, for fear that it would diminish my opinion of their more recent work. For all I know, the songs that sound so great with electric guitars, drums, and the occasional synthesizer may sound even better on unaccompanied acoustics. That said, I doubt it. The thought of their earlier material just calls up spectres of Lilith Fair and The Indigo Girls in my mind. So I've never bothered to check it out.

No matter what I might think of the earlier material, though, there's no doubt in my mind that "So Jealous" is an excellent album. Sisters Tegan and Sara, who are supposedly lesbians and definitely look far more like skinny teenage boys who shop at Hot Topic and attend Taking Back Sunday concerts than the Indigo Girls, sing their soul-baring lyrics as if they're the most important words they've ever voiced out loud, which is all the more affecting when you pay attention to the lyrics and realize the kind of vulnerabilities that these lyrics expose. My favorite song from "So Jealous" was and still is "I Know I Know I Know", a song that spends half of its time admitting to jealous, insecure behavior within a romantic relationship, and the other half acknowledging that this behavior is irrational and unfounded, that the other person in the relationship does love and care for the narrator (Tegan? Sara? I don't know which is the main vocalist). Without ever explicitly saying so, this song's lyrics constitute an apology from an insecure lover who has been lonely for so long that she doesn't know how to stop being afraid of loneliness.

At the time that I first obtained a copy of "So Jealous", this song hit very close to home for me. After spending the previous four years either completely single or in a pseudo-relationship with someone who refused to commit to me for nearly a year before finally ending things, I was finally in a serious relationship again. I was having trouble trusting the sincerity of the person I was dating, and that trouble was compounded by the fact that the relationship was long-distance (in fact, for most of it, the girl I was dating lived in another country). I ended up putting "I Know I Know I Know" on a mix CD for that girl, but of course it wasn't enough to make a difference--we broke up two months later. I continued to listen to "So Jealous" a lot during the first half of 2005, the time when getting over that relationship was hardest on me. I still liked "I Know I Know I Know", but related more heavily at that point to many of the other songs on the album, which traded that song's sophisticated expression of ambivalence for more standard lovelorn laments.

It's now been nearly three years since all of that went on. Recently, Tegan And Sara released their fifth album, "The Con". Even though it's been years since I played "So Jealous" with any kind of regularity, I was quite interested in checking out their new material, and downloaded a copy of "The Con" as soon as I could. At this point, I'm in a very different frame of mind than I was when "So Jealous" came out. I haven't been in a serious relationship since the aforementioned one, and have barely even dated anyone in the interim. I'm not nearly as lonely as I was in 2004, though. That last serious relationship forced me to step back and take a long look at what patterns I was following when I engaged in serious relationships, and what I had to do differently if I wanted them to stop crashing down around my ears.

Things have also changed in the intervening years for Tegan And Sara. While some of the songs on their new album still land on the pop end of the subgenre known as emo, others are more like electro-pop than anything else, and there are definitely less guitars on this album than there have been on any of their prior releases. Thankfully, their knack for strong melodies and powerfully delivered vocals remain intact. While it's true that I tend to like the guitar-driven songs here the best, even the most electronic songs always give me a strong enough vocal performance to retain my attention.

Their lyrics have changed too. On "So Jealous", the sophisticated lyrical approach of "I Know I Know I Know" was more the exception than the rule, but it seems to have been a sign of things to come, as many of the songs on "The Con" indicate in-depth thought processes that are far from the previously described "standard lovelorn laments". They're still singing about romantic relationships, but not in the way they used to. It seems like maybe Tegan, or Sara, or both of them, have also found themselves in the position to step back and take a long hard look at their own behavior within the context of these relationships. At least some of these examinations appear to take place within the lyrics to this album. For example, the album's title track. The phrase "The Con" is never spoken within the lyrics, but a close listen reveals just what they mean by it. The verses set the context, describing the dissolution of a relationship. The narrator is not the one ending things, and at first she's grasping at straws to try and stop it from happening. "I broke down and wrote you back before you had a chance to", she says in the first verse--and who hasn't been there? Flooding the inbox of a significant other that you fear is soon to be an ex, trying to hit upon that perfect combination of words that will keep that fear from coming true. Then in the second verse, she reaches for acceptance, tries to believe that this is ultimately a good thing: "Spelled out your name and list the reasons: --faint of heart, --don't call me back." But it doesn't really work, and by the end of the verse she's facing "a million hours left to think of you and think of that." None of this is the con, though. That's explained in the chorus, which consists in part of this line: "Nobody likes me--maybe if I cry." When all else fails, reach for the last tool left to you--naked emotional manipulation. The tears probably don't need much coaxing at times like that, but that doesn't excuse them and their use in order to garner a few more hours or days in which one forestalls the inevitable. The last line of the song is "Encircle me, I need to be taken down." That line could have a completely different meaning if it weren't for its last two words. But instead of soliciting hugs or even sex, she's begging to be stopped. The use of tears in that situation is an instinct, but deeper down, in a more rational part of her mind, she's ashamed of it.

"Back In Your Head" is not about the end of a relationship, but instead about problems that arise within a long-term, comfortable relationship. The narrator feels distant from her lover due to "a wall of books between us in our bed", and feels like she's not being seen anymore. "I'm not unfaithful," she says, "but I'll stray when I get a little scared." What's a shame is that it's often very hard to communicate this kind of alienated feeling when one's in the middle of it. In the second verse, she says, "when I jerk away from holding hands with you, I know these habits hurt important parts of you." I myself have been on both ends of this type of thing--the creation of drama where none needs to exist, just to try and draw the other person out, get them to vocalize or otherwise give overt signs of affection that has long since stopped being expressed out loud. It's hard to tell the difference, sometimes, between settling into a comfortable routine and the gradual loss of interest, and everyone wants reassurance from time to time that it's the former and not the latter, but what a hard thing to ask.

The last two songs on the album are a couple of the most powerful. "Dark Come Soon" seems to be an answer to a friend or lover who senses inadequacies. "So what, I lied, I lie to me too. Everything I say, I say to me first," she declares. This may not be a legitimate excuse for bad behavior, but it's nonetheless illuminating, and shows bravery in admitting a nearly universal truth that people generally don't want to face. The fact is, many of us lie to ourselves on a daily basis, whether to make it easier to forgive ourselves for our flaws, let ourselves off the hook for things we're not proud of doing, or just to reinforce our own insecurities and help justify never challenging them. It's something we all do, but again, it's one of the hardest things to speak out loud.

Album closer "call It Off", like the title track, examines a breakup, but this time from the perspective of the person who is ending the relationship. The song begins with the line, "I won't regret this, this thing that I'm saying," which seems to undercut its own certainty with its hesitance to name what's happening. "Call, break it off," the chorus begins, but that's followed immediately with "call, break my own heart." One thing that I've come to realize after my last few years of unattached contemplation is that the decision to end a relationship does not necessarily indicate a loss of feelings for the other person. Sometimes, no matter how much you care about someone, you know that the two of you aren't good for each other, that you're just making each other miserable on a day to day basis, no matter how hard you try not to. These breakups are the worst, for both parties, perhaps especially for the one who decides upon such a course of action. "Maybe you would have been something I'd be good at, but now we'll never know", Tegan and Sara sing together, with what sounds like genuine regret. The next lines make the regret even more palpable, as well as introducing a note of uncertainty: "I won't be sad but in case, I'll go there every day to make myself feel bad. There's a chance I'll start to wonder if this was the thing to do." This last line is a classic; the tendency of a person breaking things off with another is to throw in some tiny shred of hope that eventually, somewhere down the line, things could come back together again. Generally, there's no basis in reality for such a thing, but one feels the need to soften the blow, even if it gives someone false hope. Perhaps their next album will contain a song about how terrible they feel for giving someone false hope at the end of a relationship.

I feel bad for not going into more detail about the musical elements of these songs. The ones I've discussed above are my lyrical favorites, but while "The Con" is also musically one of my favorite tracks on the album, there are definitely others (such as "Hop A Plane" or "Nineteen") that I like far more for their music and their lyrics. In the end, though, it's the lyrics on this album that have really made an impression on me. Musically, these songs aren't all that complicated, and chances are that you'll enjoy them exactly as much as you'd think you'd enjoy an album that straddles the border between the poppier side of emo and the more emotional side of electro-synth-pop. But regardless of what you think of "The Con", I love it, and I'm proud to advertise that fact.

Tegan And Sara - The Con
Tegan And Sara - Call It Off

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