Pop is rife with injustice. Adele scoops up an armload of Grammys, then apologises to Beyoncé, whose Lemonade album unforgivably lost out to 25. If you were to use ground-penetrating radar, you would find the citadel of success is built on the bones of countless adored cult acts who unfairly failed to make a living from their art. That manmade hill sits on the remains of all the embryonic greats who were too niche to get their break, and so on, down the strata – a catacomb-like inverse of Leonard Cohen’s famous Tower of Song.
The success of Tegan and Sara shines out like a neon beacon, just a few hours’ climb from the summit. A rare slab of justice is being served tonight, because this pair of indefatigable Canadian twins (expanded by live drums, keys and bass) are playing their emotionally literate pop to a packed house. This is their biggest UK headline tour to date.
Tegan Quin – hair down, black leggings – jokingly lists her tour injuries so far: her foot, her hand, her burnt mouth, the popcorn that got stuck in the burn. Sara Quin – white leggings, hair up – is trying to persuade the crowd to jump. She is worried about jumping herself, in case she hurts her back (worrying is what Sara does). But she jumps anyway as they start the next number: Drove Me Wild, a perky pop song about a love affair in which one party is holding back. It, and the next pristine nugget, Goodbye, Goodbye, date from the identical twins’ Heartthrob album of 2013. It changed everything for the duo, leading them triumphantly to this sweet spot – success without compromise.
Six albums into a career of singing earnest, mimsy indie rock, the Quin sisters abruptly morphed into a synthpop outfit for their seventh. The twins embraced the mainstream in the body of producer Greg Kurstin (Katy Perry, Kesha, Sia) and channelled their songs about unrequited love and affective disparity into aerodynamic, 80s-indebted vessels. Tonight, Closer is perhaps its highest point; its bittersweet verses and pumping choruses spell lust out quite clearly: “All I’m dreaming lately is how to get you underneath me.”
Heartthrob was not only a success: its 80s soundbed came to be an acknowledged influence on Taylor Swift’s colossal 1989 and Carly Rae Jepsen. (More recently, Mancunian pop producer Shura has written about how inspirational Tegan and Sara were to her, in both incarnations.)
The Quin sisters started off “niche”, became “cult”’, and ended up writing Everything Is Awesome for The Lego Movie; all this while being not only open, but nonchalant and universalising about their sexuality. Boyfriend – from 2016’s Love You to Death – is a case in point. It grouses magnificently about falling in love with a straight girl who kisses you like her boyfriend but treats you like her best friend. Written by two thirtysomethings, its natural habitat is high school, both sonically and lyrically.
Everything is pretty much awesome about Tegan and Sara – their long-haul business acumen, their candour, their onstage banter. They toured here on the eve of Brexit, and were in DC when Trump was elected. “Don’t invite us to your country on the eve of an important group decision!” they advise. They stand “in solidarity” not just with people on the wrong end of sexism or homophobia, but “with everyone who is getting fucked with”.
Their actual music, though, is surprisingly staid and one-dimensional. The intense older songs – The Con, Nineteen – have been rearranged in the new shiny vernacular, but their sound as a whole tonight lacks the drama that is latent in the lyrics. Tegan and Sara are throwing back hard to the 80s, but to the most anodyne bits of it: nice harmonies, straightforward beats, primary-hued melodies.
Where are the Valkyries? Where is the solar plexus-kicking CGI? Pop in the 21st century is a playground in which old strictures dissolve weekly, where outré sounds and cutting-edge techniques are mainstream. Taylor Swift’s 1989 is full of son et lumière; Christine and the Queens’ Chaleur Humaine is both deep and slinky, replete with nagging melodies, 80s-referencing fun and startling R&B fast-cuts. An hour and a half in Tegan and Sara’s company is never a waste, but this Trojan horse view of pop – smuggling good stuff in under cover of blandness – needs revising. Their victory needs to be completed.