Entirely by coincidence, listening to Heartthrob this week comes hot on the heels of two other pieces of storytelling by lesbian creators dealing with sexuality that I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks. I’m talking about Park Chan-Wook’s film The Handmaiden (he’s not a lesbian, obviously, but it’s based on the book Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, so bear with me), and Careful, the autobiographical one-woman show of Scottish musician Horse McDonald.* Aside from that obvious connection, they’re three very different works: Waters’ book is set in Victorian England, transferred to 1930s Korea in The Handmaiden; Horse’s show begins by talking about growing up queer in 1970s Lanark, all the way through to the present; and then, here, we have Heartthrob. Heartthrob is not overtly, content-wise, particularly gay. It’s about teenage crushes, more or less. And it’s the sort of album which, had it existed circa 2004, I would have memorised all the words to within a week, and probably forced Emily to listen to on the bus.
What I feel like all three things have in common, though – and this is both the point of mentioning Fingersmith and Careful, and also probably where I pull things out of thin air a bit – is their fundamental optimism. In Fingersmith, (spoiler!) the gay ladies win. Horse ends up happy, singing at the Stonewall concert at the Albert Hall, touring her story around Scotland to show younger girls and boys that their sexuality is okay, it’s an important and wholesome and just all round good part of them. And Tegan and Sara Quin have breathtakingly well-adjusted whirlwind love affairs, without once – across the whole album! – descending into pantomime obsessiveness.
Partly this is selection bias on my part, but I hope it’s also a trend, because I’m really rather enjoying it.
The thing that struck me the most about Heartthrob is just how very normal it is. Fifteen seconds into the first track, it’s all synth and beat. This is pop. This is a Top-40 pop album, quite clearly aimed at a younger audience. It’s the type of music I might have listened to before a university night out, with four other girls putting on mascara in four different mirrors. Hell, I might still do that, given the opportunity. This is the sort of music you listen to in the car, with people, because everyone will pretty much get on with it. The Quin sisters can write an earworm, oh my they can.
And yet, for all that, this doesn’t feel like lowest common denominator music. It doesn’t feel like platitudes. The tracks dealing with regret and loneliness don’t feel like wallowing, and they don’t feel unsurmountable. This is, overall, if not a happy album then a mostly contented one. It feels like it knows what it’s like to be young, and still take things seriously. “Drives Me Wild” describes a crush convincingly without cheese or creepiness, for which I would like to award One (1) Gold Star. “I’m Not Your Hero” sounds like it’s meant to be sung in a concert hall by eight hundred people who feel like they have a personal connection with it – and without the shadow of a doubt, I would be one of those people, and being in that hall would make me cry. And my personal favourite, “Now I’m All Messed Up” gets the drama and messiness of heartbreak without going off the deep end. The whole thing is just exemplary. For all that this particular brand of poppiness doesn’t usually get me that excited, in this case I can’t really fault it.
*Complete aside here, but I discovered Horse’s work through blagging my way along to review her show – and she’s a revelation. Extremely listenable-to voice, very personable lady. Definitely worth a listen, if you’re looking for something a bit soulful.