Tegan and Sara are a legacy act now. No indie rock band has stepped into that role with as much creativity and aplomb as the Quin sisters—songwriters, trailblazers, LGBTQ activists and now avid self-archivists. The shift occurred around the 10th anniversary of The Con, the band’s charged and influential 2007 album, a milestone commemorated with not only an intimate tour but also a curated tribute album featuring the group’s peers. After they’d spent two decades clawing through the indie rock trenches, it was nice to see the twins finally basking in the respect they’d always deserved but not always received.
Now Tegan and Sara are digging even further back in their history. Hey, I’m Just Like You, the sisters’ ninth album, arrives in tandem with a memoir about their fraught high school years titled, appropriately, High School. The album comes with an impossibly alluring origin story: While writing High School, the twins unearthed two “lost cassette tapes that had been unheard for over 20 years.” Those cassettes contained early songs the sisters wrote during the mid-to-late 1990s, when they were self-described teenage dirtbags—skipping school, experimenting with acid, shredding their fingers on their first electric guitar. Now, at 38, they’ve revisited and revised those songs with adult voices and (let’s just assume) a far heftier recording budget. Hey, I’m Just Like You is entirely comprised of those re-recordings.
On these tracks, you can hear Tegan and Sara’s younger selves coming to terms with early relationship experiences, rejection, their own queerness. “Right now, I wish I was older,” Sara sings on “Hello I’m Right Here,” a pining ballad written after she was rejected by a straight-girl crush. The time-capsule quality of the material allows for multiple meanings. When sung by a thirtysomething, the deceptively ebullient “We Don’t Have Fun When We’re Together Anymore” could be a lament for a passionless marriage. In fact, it’s a teenager venting about alienation within one’s own friend group. The tracklist is full of angsty declarative titles like that, would-be lines from a high schooler’s diary: “Keep Them Close ’Cause They Will Fuck You Too,” “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” “Don’t Believe The Things They Tell You (They Lie),” et. al.
Musically, Hey, I’m Just Like You strives to combine the slick synth-pop of Tegan and Sara’s radio-ready recent albums—2013’s Heartthrob, 2016’s Love You to Death—with the roiling angst of their early work. It’s an uneasy juxtaposition, and it doesn’t always work, in part because nothing on here is quite as sugary and hooky as current-decade gems like “Closer” and “Boyfriend.” (The infectious new-wavey rush of “I Know I’m Not the Only One” could register as an exception.) That’s to be expected, since the Tegan and Sara of 1998—then going by “Sara and Tegan”—were not aiming for pop crossover.
At times, the manicured production seems to be actively undermining the emotional fuse of the new-old material. A tormented kiss-off like “Don’t Believe The Things They Tell You (They Lie)” would benefit from a rawer, If It Was You-style attack. Instead, the band and their new collaborator, Australian producer Alex Hope, overstuff the song with stuttery drum programming and faux-dramatic synths. The youthful provocation of a well-deployed f-bomb in “Keep Them Close ‘Cause They Will Fuck You Too” is similarly neutralized by the cookie-cutter mush of the song’s production. It comes out sounding like something you’d hear on a Target playlist. The record closes with an identity crisis anthem called “All I Have to Give the World Is Me,” in which teenaged-Tegan wavers between a secret high school girlfriend and the lure of musical ambition (“Staring down my two halves / In the glass / Feels like a heart attack,” she sings). But the character of current-Tegan’s voice is buried in overdubs and studio sheen. Compare it with the spare catharsis she once delivered on “Call It Off.”
This album’s unusual gambit does sometimes pay off in ways likely to delight the band’s longest-serving loyalists. The first single, “I’ll Be Back Someday,” resurrects the pop-punk of 2002’s If It Was You and pairs it with an effervescent power-pop hook. (The song’s roots, of course, stretch back even further, to the sisters’ early punk band, called Plunk.) The result is so thrilling you wonder how the Quins have managed to keep the song a 20-year secret. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, “Please Help Me” is a rush of teenage uncertainties (”What if I become all the horrible things I swore I would never be?”) that also functions as a poignant throwback to the folk-pop of the band’s first record. Of the song’s genesis, Sara writes, in an accompanying track-by-track guide: “I was scared as hell to grow up, to be gay, to be alive.”
In the album’s teaser trailer, a shaky early recording of “I’ll Be Back Someday” is superimposed with grainy home video of the gawky teens. The song suddenly transforms into its modern-day iteration. It’s a triumphant sort of time-lapse—present-day Tegan and Sara are very much grown up, gay and alive. The record, though, could have used more of that grainy adolescent roughness.