Children Of 'The Con'
In the summer of 2007, on the second-to-last Tuesday in July, Tegan and Sara Quin sat perched on a fulcrum. To one side lay a respectable catalog four albums deep, on which songwriting and production ideas wrung from new wave and alt-rock were filtered through folk guitar, pixieish vocals and an impressive series of matching haircuts.
On the other side lay a world most wouldn't have predicted, where the Quin sisters tour with Katy Perry, appear on Hollywood soundtracks and are among the most vocal and visible LGBTQ artists of their time — all while making gleaming radio pop that couldn't sound more different from the two teenagers teaching themselves Pro Tools all those years ago. The journey from one creative pole to the other is better understood as a steady evolution than a single reinvention — but if there is one dot on that timeline that feels like a turning point, it's 2007's The Con.
The Con wasn't the precise moment Tegan and Sara broke through critically; that would be 2004's So Jealous, which brought widespread recognition and a single that would be covered by The White Stripes. Nor was it really their commercial crossover — that honor goes to 2013's Heartthrob, which debuted in the US at No. 3. But for those who have followed their career, it was a watershed of form — the moment their acoustic and electronic instincts seemed to find a resonant frequency.
Produced by Chris Walla, and featuring the session-band equivalent of a fantasy sports team — with players from Death Cab for Cutie, The Rentals and AFI, plus splashes of guitar sorcery from Kaki King — The Con didn't sound quite like anything going in indie rock or mainstream pop. A companion documentary, filled with eye-opening insights into the process (Did you know the shaker on "Back In Your Head" is actually a jar of chocolate-covered sunflower seeds?) portrayed the Quins and their collaborators as disciplined professionals at work. People noticed: Critical writing about the duo began to spend less time on identity bullet points (twins, Canadians, lesbians) and more on dissecting the art — including the lyrics, which carried nested metaphors for marriage equality and sexual self-discovery, if one was inclined to listen for them. As would later become apparent, a generation of young, queer-positive musicians was doing just that.
On July 24, The Conturns 10. Gathered below to appraise the album's 14 songs are 14 artists who say their lives, music and senses of self have never been the same since The Con came around. Many were in high school and younger when it was released, years away from forming the bands that would bring them national attention and, in some cases, opening slots on Tegan and Sara tours. (A few, like Vagabon and Japanese Breakfast, are supporting the band right now and emailed their reflections from the road.)
Also here are lifers like Beauty Pill's Chad Clark, a rival to Walla in mind-bending studio experimentation, and the crack rhythm section that performed on The Con itself: Death Cab's Jason McGerr, whose inside-out drum parts (recorded, amazingly, after the main guitar and synth tracks) are an arrangement masterclass all their own, and bassists Hunter Burgan and Matt Sharp. Tegan and Sara will spend this fall touring what they call "The Con X," an acoustic reimagining of their landmark record. In the meantime, here's a look at what a decade of influence has wrought so far.
1. "I Was Married"
Reviewed by Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast
My best friend in college and I had a band called Post Post and it was our dream to open for Tegan and Sara. We probably watched The Condocumentary over a hundred times. We pored over every detail on the record, dissected Chris Walla's production and Jason McGerr's drums, got into heated discussions of what makes a "Tegan" song and what makes a "Sara" one.
"I Was Married" is such a Sara song! It's so vulnerable and generous in every way; the arrangement is so sparse and deliberate. It's a completely perfect opening track and has remained my very favorite T&S song. At the time, I was really struggling to understand and communicate my sexuality, and this soundtracked so much of that experience. It's so surreal that 10 years later, I finally get to open for one of my favorite bands.
2. "Relief Next To Me"
Reviewed by Chad Clark of Beauty Pill
"I miss you now ... I guess ... like I should have missed you then."
As a general matter, we're all attracted to artists we relate to and artists we feel we can learn from. Ideally, you find both qualities in the same artist. For fans of Tegan and Sara, that's certainly the case. I'm older than Tegan and Sara, and I know a little bit about putting songs together. The fact that "Relief Next To Me" gives me the feeling that I can learn from them speaks to their immense talent and vision. It's an extraordinary song on a number of musical and textural levels, but just take a moment to contemplate that opening trope.
Sara sings, "I miss you now" (darkly bending the note down on the word "now"), and then pauses and adds "I guess." And she follows that with "like I should have missed you then." Think about that astoundingly deft economy of communication! It's stunning, really. We learn so much about the situation and the mood and the character just in those few seconds. There is plain remorse and longing, but it's modified after a breath with the phrase "I guess." And then she indicts herself with the admission, "like I should have missed you then." (Does "I guess" modify the previous phrase or the phrase after? Or both? Hard to tell, the way it's sung.) She blends a love note, a dark dismissal, and an anguished elegy — all in one sentence. Seriously? YOU try it.
3. "The Con"
Reviewed by Hunter Burgan of AFI//Bass on The Con (Tegan's Songs)
I had been friends with Tegan for a couple years when she asked me to play bass on her songs on The Con. I didn't even need to think about it: So Jealous had been my No. 1 record of 2004.
Tegan sent me a CD of demos so I could start writing parts and I quickly became aware of the sisters' different demoing styles. Sara's songs seemed fully realized; her demos were tastefully arranged and mixed. Tegan's songs were raw and unrefined, often just vocals and guitar. There was no clear indication what the drums would be doing, what the chord progressions were — and that made me nervous.
I flew into Portland and met up with Tegan, Sara and Chris Walla at the studio. I was a day early; they were still working with Jason McGerr on the drum parts. Being able to hear Jason's drum performance was like Christmas, or maybe the night before Christmas? That night I took the rough mixes back to the house the girls were staying in and holed up in the basement. I stayed up late refining my parts, tweaking and changing them to fit with the drums. The later it got the more I started to second-guess what I'd written: Too weird? Too busy? The last thing I wanted to do was ruin these songs by overplaying. One of the reasons I fell in love with So Jealous was its directness and simplicity; every note felt intentional and purposeful. But this wasn't So Jealous. This was something new.
Over the years, Tegan and I have had many long conversations about life, love and relationships. When I heard "The Con" (formerly "Encircle Me"), I recognized the feeling she was expressing — the feeling of emotional chaos, frantic, urgent and desperate. I wrote a bass part that had a lot of movement and syncopation because I wanted to strengthen that feeling. Most of what I wrote was based on Tegan's vocal performance. My movement followed her movement; her intensity dictated my intensity.
I didn't bring a bass to Portland because Chris had a few for me to choose from. For "The Con," I settled on a gold, hollow-body Epiphone. I had never recorded with a hollow-body before, but this one seemed perfect for the song — heavy in the low notes, vulnerable in the higher notes. As I played along to the tracks, I looked around the room to gauge the reaction. Everyone seemed to be feeling it. Chris actually suggested I make one section even busier ("Nobody, nobody, nobody ... "). After a while, I realized that I didn't need to worry so much about screwing up Tegan's songs. I was there because she chose my unique creative voice; I was an extension of her expression. It may have been her song, but I felt it, too.
4. "Knife Going In"
Reviewed by Matt Sharp of The Rentals, formerly of Weezer//Bass on The Con (Sara's Songs)
Something interesting happened one day on the way to my 40s: Like a Gravitron ride at a pop-up amusement park, the floor suddenly fell right out from under me. The fiercest, most debilitating wave of depression struck my mind with such a violent force that it left me spinning for months, clinging to the padded walls of this rickety carnival ride. On the days that followed this storm, I found myself curled up on the couch, gasping for air, drained of all positive life force and weeping uncontrollably. It was in this state that I found myself when a small, tan, bubble-wrapped envelope arrived in the mail containing a couple homemade gold CDs adorned with casual handwriting and smiley faces, letting me know that my dear friend Sara Quin had just written a couple new songs.
Maybe it was the dissonance of her reflections, the minor key, the disjointed nature of her more abstract writing in the early sketches of "Floorplan," "Knife Going In" and "Like O, Like H" that was hitting too close to home, but her chords and words and melodies became an accomplice in the corruption of my everyday thoughts.
"If I don't recover, sell this house and find something lost outside your window / Not forever, but on the night I die, I swear I'll fall asleep outside your window."
I kept listening; hour after unproductive hour, hoping to come up with some meaningful way to contribute to what would undoubtedly be a remarkable next chapter in her already incredible creative life — but I came up with nothing. What needed to be said, in my unwavering opinion, had already been said. It spoke to me and it spoke clearly. So with great embarrassment I put in a call that I truly wished I hadn't had to make, but felt I had no choice. I tried to elicit her sympathy with toned down, comedic tales of my grief-stricken state, and then I hemmed and hawed until I finally spit it out: "There is absolutely no way I will be able to make it up to Portland."
A recording studio can often be its own hermetically sealed micro-universe, where the collective chemistry is easily influenced by adding or subtracting one individual to its tiny population. As I slowly navigated my way through the dense fog of Grants Pass, Ore., the fear of what would happen to Chris Walla and the innocent citizens of Conville once I added my noxious compound to the mix preoccupied me for nearly all of my journey's 962 miles.
The demos I'd received were already layered with these brilliant keyboards that Sara had played at her apartment in Montreal. They had a very distinct point of view and you could tell those sounds were going to color the album in a way that was unique to her. A couple years before I had scattered a few atmospheric synthesizers in the background of So Jealous, but it quickly became apparent that those same ingredients wouldn't be helpful here. The executive decision was made for me to try and add a little bass guitar instead, to be the barbaric yang to Hunter Burgan's proficient yin. Sara's keyboard parts had already filled the songs with boundless amounts of comforting low frequencies — so off I went on an adventure I rarely make, above the 12th fret.
I can remember sitting at the mixing board next to Chris. He had this Raymond Babbitt ability to keep track of each time I was slightly ahead or behind the beat. Then he would ask me to play the same part one more time and with savant-like precision, he would "punch in" and "punch out" as the song rolled along on this glitchy, antiquated digital recording system that he seemed to love for some reason. After just one or two additional passes through whatever song we were working on, Chris would say, "Got it!" To which I would ask, "Got what?" and receive an economical, "Oh, nothing." He had the gift to make us sound like we were all one-take wonders. And before I knew it, I was on my way back home.
In some ways, The Con is that album most of us secretly hope our favorite band is just about to make: one where the raw desire to share their story leaves things a little rough around the edges. You may struggle a little to find your connection with albums like this one: They can be unsettling, a little off-center, odd in tone and difficult to understand, at first. But once you get there, after moving through the dissonance and making it to the other side, the bond that you share with that music can become so meaningful that it just might stay with you forever.
5. "Are You Ten Years Ago"
Reviewed by KC Dalager of Now, Now
I first heard Tegan and Sara on a local radio station in Minneapolis; it was the song "So Jealous." It was raw and honest but catchy and simple, and I hadn't ever heard anything like it. I instantly looked them up when I got home, and as it turned out, they were just releasing The Con. I found the in-studio videos of them working on the album and I was so intrigued; it was the first time I had ever seen the inner workings of recording and songwriting outside of my own.
In the studio video for "Are You Ten Years Ago," you can see Sara singing with her hands cupped over her mouth. I thought this was incredibly cool, and very soon after that I definitely wrote a demo where I had my hands cupped over my mouth. I've always been a fan of atypical drum patterns, the incorporation of electronic tracks, lyrics that made me wonder but also made me feel something deep and specific. It was exactly what I wanted to hear: It's rhythmic and kind of chaotic but also gives you room to breathe, which is a special balance to achieve. It really hooked me as a long-term listener.
6. "Back In Your Head"
Reviewed by Mackenzie Scott of Torres
"What is this?" I remember asking my friend. I was in high school the first time I heard "Back In Your Head" and the setting was something mundane — think Walgreens at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. But I remember going limp all over when the chorus opened up. I let my eyes become vacant and unfocused. It was that familiar, sweet paralysis that comes when you hear a song or a band for the first time, at the right time, and you want to literally drop everything that's in your hands so you can go home and listen on repeat all by yourself.
"Back in Your Head" is still my favorite Tegan and Sara song — even more so now, in its live iteration as sexy synth-pop. Nothing less than superior songwriting ability can synthesize the compacted discomfort of losing control, the urgency of desire and the fear of being forgotten into a singular, lucid pop chorus. "
I just want back in your head. I just want back in your head."
7. "Hop A Plane"
Reviewed by Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee
Every great album is connected by a thoughtful sequence. The movement of that sequence, how those songs fit and flow together, is often just as important as the songs themselves. The Con's frequent juxtaposition of melancholy malaise and bursts of poppy mania are among the things that make it so unique to me, because the adjacency of the up and the down creates tension.
"Hop A Plane" is perhaps the most "up" moment the album has. In less than two minutes, it conjures a unique feeling of frustrated panic you don't hear often in song form, a flash of desperation that is immediately gratifying in its relatability. There's a line early on — "Imagine me there, my heart asleep with no air / Begging ocean please, help me drown these memories" — describing what I understand to be the last gasp of a broken relationship. To me, this lyric has always stuck out because the song itself sounds airless, with no space between the fuzzy guitar, the volatile drums and the quintessential T&S backup vocals. It spawns an urgency out of nowhere, like fireworks in the middle of beautiful winter day.
This song has always served me as a keystone on mixtapes or playlists in moments of swift transition, building me up at times when I was feeling vulnerable. "All I need to hear is that you're not mine," repeating over and over, just evokes an image of "THE END." And coupling that image with frenzied pop excellence makes for such a great song about a really distinct feeling of dread and dismay. The ability to write such acutely specific lyrics attached to such uniquely catchy melodies is what makes Tegan and Sara's music so significant, and so meaningful.
8. "Soil, Soil"
Reviewed by Holly Miranda
The stripped-down production on "Soil, Soil" makes it one of my favorite moments on the record — and disproves the idea that a perfect pop song must be 3:30 long. Around the 37-second mark, I'm transported back to those obsessive moments in the early days of mass digitalized communication: the angst in the core of my chest like an old familiar friend, impulsive with a little desperation, unsure of how to navigate this new frontier. I imagine this happens every few generations: The introduction of the telephone most likely caused a great deal of anguish for tongue-tied crushes who were used to mailing letters to each other. The feeling this song describes is ageless, and universal.
9. "Burn Your Life Down"
Reviewed by Jenny Owen Youngs
Told through small, crystallized moments of deliberation and ambivalence, "Burn Your Life Down" feels as resonant to me now as the first time I heard it. Like so many great songs do, it affords us a peek into the delicate architecture of the human brain and heart. My favorite image comes in the bridge: "I drive around the block and I'm not looking to my right / I feel the glass against my cheek and I can't see you in the light." Those words transport me back to high school night drives: watching my ghost reflection in the window, then changing focus and looking through myself to the darkened world outside the car. This is the kind of song that makes you feel young and dumb, breakable and wise ... and like you might finally be ready to start growing up.
Reviewed by Shura
The first time I saw Tegan and Sara was at the 100 Club in London. I was a teenager, still living in Manchester with my family, and had made the journey down by train. I remember convincing my best friend to come along so that I wasn't alone. At the end of the show I queued alongside every other fan in the room for merch and a photo. I'm fairly certain I handed Tegan a CD of my own (undoubtedly horrible) music, and left with a T-shirt and a picture with two of my heroes. It's strange to think that 10 years or so later I would be supporting them on tour.
When The Con was released, I was just beginning to explore my own sexuality, and songs like "Nineteen" that soundtracked my growing up queer in Manchester. I remember thinking that the phrase "I felt you in my legs before I ever met you" was so strange and beautiful. I remember anticipating the drums exploding at every chorus, the huge crash — it was so exciting sonically to me, and probably the first time I'd ever really thought about production.
In the final chorus, there is this strange sound that I've always assumed was a doorbell — and which took me to an imagined future outside the apartment of someone I loved, who perhaps had broken up with me, who I wanted to talk to, to try to understand why. I've never asked Tegan or Sara about this sound, and I suppose I ought to. But I also love that I've decided what it is in my head, regardless. It will always take me back to being a teenager, who felt like the world was ending just because someone she fancied didn't fancy her anymore.
Reviewed by Laetitia Tamko of Vagabon
"Floorplan" is one of my favorites from The Con, though until a few months ago I hadn't heard it since the album's release in 2007. I was immediately drawn in by the production, the rhythm section especially: It's such a well-constructed folk-rock track, with an infectious drum beat that creates this enticing juxtaposition throughout. And I can't talk about this song without mentioning how effortlessly Tegan and Sara blend rhythm and harmonies. I may have been 10 years late to The Con, but lateness is irrelevant when the music is timeless.
12. "Like O, Like H"
Reviewed by Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie// Drums On The Con
I still have the kit I used for this great record. There's a hole cut in the front bass drum head outlined with black tape, followed by the letter "H," and I'll never change it out or sell the drums.
I'll always think of "Like O, Like H" as the great drum heist from this album. Not that I schemed the blueprint — it was Tegan and Sara's weird-ass demo programming that pointed the way. But I was able to pull off something that most drummers would have been fired for attempting. (People don't usually write songs around lo-fi, fuzzed-out, polyrhythmic drum parts.) The combination of their fearlessness and Chris Walla saying, "Let's see where this goes ... " made it possible for us to realize a unique vision for the song.
During the chorus, Walla's destroying a vintage AKG BX-5 Spring Reverb, which was documented during our filming in the studio. Earlier, Chris had picked it up and set it down on a stack of equipment, and it sounded like bomb footage from an old Super 8 film coming through the speaker. A few minutes later he was recording a pass, repeatedly slamming the unit down on the desk while saying goodbye to his recent eBay acquisition. It's incredible how much weird s*** worked out really well.
13. "Dark Come Soon"
Reviewed by Mary Lambert
We all know the production on The Con is genius, but "Dark Come Soon" is like Chris, Tegan and Sara at their finest: the slow instrumental and rhythmic build, the bell of the cymbal on 2 and 4 in the chorus, the gutting repeated phrases ("So what, I lied / I lie to me, too"), the redemptive post-chorus. And then the countermelodies and counter-rhythms come in halfway through, and you're like, f***.
"Dark Come Soon" is a classic both because of what they're saying and how they're saying it. I would punch a child to have been in that vocal booth and heard "Everyone I love, get back from me now" delivered the way Tegan does. The song has so much heartbreaking duality: wanting to be close to people, to be nurtured by them — and also fearing yourself in that wanting. Knowing that you are capable of hurting those you love more because of that closeness. "Dark Come Soon" was a huge inspiration for one of the very first songs I ever released, " This Heart," and The Con continues to be a propeller for my work. So grateful for Tegan and Sara and this album. It changed my life.
14. "Call It Off"
Reviewed by Melina Duterte of Jay Som
"Call It Off" is one of my top closers on any album. The Con navigates through so many emotions, so when it finally nears the end there's this sense of melancholic clarity. This song genuinely captures the effort you have to put into a relationship with the wrong person-- and the frustration, uncertainty, and disappointment you're bound to experience when it's nearing the breaking point.
The line "Maybe I would have been something you'd be good at" gives me chills every time: It makes you think about all the what-ifs in your life, and the self-inflicted pain of your own hurtful choices. It could have been a simple acoustic pop vocal tune, but Tegan's vocals and guitar end up being the foundation for layers that steadily build. I especially love the section around the one-minute mark, with its Bruce Springsteen palm-muted guitar and percussion kicking in in the background. It's a thoughtful track to close out a truly amazing record.
Lars Gotrich, Karen Gwee, Jenna Li and Marissa Lorusso provided editorial and production support for this story.
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