It’s kind of fitting, and also telling, that the first song on Tegan and Sara’s new record Crybaby, they sing “I can’t grow up!” several times over. Over a slightly plain but groovy, driving pulse, the song’s eponymous lyric comes along with a plea to “give me all of your love”, but it leaves the sensation that maybe they’re right…
The duo’s 10th record, Crybaby feels like a relatively natural extension of the gleaming, stadium-staring pop that has occupied their output since 2013’s Heartthrob. On that record (and to a lesser extent its followup Love You to Death), the twins’ songs were often strong enough to sort of make up for the bloated, sleek, over-sanitized production, but overall, the move out of their more DIY folk-leaning material has been divisive. Their last album Hey I’m Just Like You was built upon the questionable conceit of containing only songs written by them back when they were teenagers. Sonically, it sort of split the difference between their radio pop sensibilities and their more alternative edge, with some slightly stronger singing, but to ultimately forgettable results.
Now we have Crybaby, which stands as yet another unfortunate release in the band’s discography. Despite that telling-on-themselves lyric from that opener, “I Can’t Grow Up” is a solid start. It’s bright, catchy, and simple. It’s like a watered down version of something Tegan and Sara have done very well before, and it wouldn’t sound terribly out of step with anything on their past three releases. The slower “All I Wanted” coasts in upon thin, wintery synths, a simplistic beat, and some 90s-indebted acoustic guitars. So far, so ok.
But things quickly start to take a turn. The sonic palette of the record, it becomes clear, is rather limited. The synths are often either a plain lead or a foggy wall; the basslines are groovy enough but don’t have a ton of personality; the drumming and beats are serviceable, but unremarkable. And in one of the album’s most puzzling (and frustrating) moves, nearly all the songs begin with a short snippet of sounds — usually a voice, sometimes an instrument — that’s been heavily processed or edited or chopped-n-screwed. Sometimes they’re warbly; sometimes they’re chipmunk’d; none are terribly pleasant or necessary. But after the second or third one in a row, it becomes a rather grating gimmick. Sometimes they’re even in the song, such as the wailing sound in the chorus of the otherwise-pleasant “Pretty Shitty Time” that sounds like a chiptuned baby. The worst offender, by far, is “I’m Okay”, which is truly nearly unlistenable at points.
There are some bright moments. The vocals, much of the time, are pretty sweet on the ear; the melodies are often quite easygoing and pleasant, with some instantly catchy melodies. “Pretty Shitty Time”, sound effects aside, is slinky, fun, and strikes a good balance between toned down and amped up; it’s laid back and softly groovy without being too sleepy or too fizzy. “Smoking Weed Alone” has perhaps the most successful melding of melody, conversational lyrics, and simple but bouncy production. The more balladesque tracks like “Yellow” and “Faded Like a Feeling” are nice changes of pace, though they don’t feel too deeply substantive, and their production renders them flatter than they may sound in a live setting or on a demo recording. “This Ain’t Going Well” falls short on that spectrum, slacking off into a yawny placidity. The closer “Whatever That Was” is a bit staid as well, though it at least sounds like their attempt at a gently glowing Sharon Van Etten-style ballad, so there’s that.
Overall, though, Crybaby is a disappointing effort from the band. The sounds are mostly unimagainitive (or worse — irritating) from the wonky or stale synth licks, to some of their least pleasant singing, and some bland lyricism. It remains a frustrating record, though, since it does show Tegan and Sara attempting to pull away, ever so slightly, from the sickeningly shiny days of “Closer”, but they get in their own way in their efforts to be edgy or forward-thinking. Take “Fucking Up What Matters”, for example: the verses are washed out and pretty, the chorus is catchy, and then the vocals on the verses are so austerely, aggressively grating. It’s a dissonant and confusing moment, and it’s not the only time Crybaby feels unsure of itself or like the sisters don’t go as deeply as they could, or like they’re simply making head-scratching decisions. They may be trying their hand at growing, but perhaps they should be more concerned with digging in.