Tegan and Sara review – pointed new songs a statement of intent

Koko, London
The Calgary-born twins combine more impressively than ever, but the promise of arena-sized success means they might have to overhaul their bare-bones stage presence

It’s half-time at the first of Tegan and Sara Quin’s only two UK shows this summer, and the Calgary-born twins are doing a good job of forgetting that they’re 35 years old. Having just played “two bangers in a row” – Stop Desire and U-Turn, from new album Love You to Death – they’ve reached the lairy stage of the evening. They’ve already unspooled, as visiting North Americans must, their “British” accents, and disabused many a twin misconception (they don’t sleep in bunk beds, for one thing), so it’s on to what they would do for a million pounds. “If I was single, I’d have sex with an older businessman for £1 million,” says Sara. Spluttering, her sister primly replies: “For £1 million, I’d start a cat rescue.”

Exchanges like this ripple through the show – it’s not inaccurate to say that in terms of on-stage interaction, Tegan and Sara, who started as 15-year-old acoustic folk-poppers, have remained locked in adolescence. Though their music is dark and nuanced, fuelled by rivalry and the complexity of being gay women in the music industry, the interludes between songs prove that teenage giddiness is never really unlearned. Tegan is the garrulous one, lengthily riffing about whatever caught her attention today, while Sara contributes frequent side-eye. To allow us to tell them apart, they obligingly stand Ant and Dec-style, in order of their names: Tegan on the left in a multi-coloured jacket; Sara, in white, on the right. They amiably swap guitars between the acoustic openers, Call It Off and Now I’m All Messed Up, and harmonise with steely grace. After a lifetime together, the Quins don’t appear to be tired of each other.

Just as well, because the trajectory of their career has arced upward since their seventh album, 2013’s Heartthrob. Polished to a synthy gleam, it reached the American and Canadian Top 3 and provided inspiration for Taylor Swift’s 1989 album. No longer third-on-the-bill cult stalwarts, the sisters pushed for comprehensive arena-pop immersion on Love You to Death, acquiring greater expectations along the way. Until recently, Tegan had been unable “to think of a gay woman that’s on the pop charts”; now she’s wondering if they might be able to play the 20,000-seat O2 Arena by next year.

If they get there, and you wouldn’t bet against it, they’ll have to put some thought into presentation. Of visuals and special effects, there are currently none. But the bare-bones approach of just the sisters, plus a drummer and a keyboardist, suffices for Koko. The attraction here is the sinuous entwining of voices, and the way certain lyrics are thrown into sharp relief: there’s “Sick inside, wondering where you’re leaving your makeup”, and from the thundering power ballad Nineteen, the euphemistic “I felt you in my legs before I even met you”. Most pointedly, and sung by the entire crowd, a line from the buoyant new single Boyfriend – “I don’t wanna be your secret any more” – sounds like a statement of intent.

Before they leave they address both the EU referendum (“I won’t tell you how to vote, but you know what to do,” says Tegan) and Orlando. Now more than ever, she says, with London’s Pride weekend around the corner, love and community are everything.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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