In December’s column I described producer Greg Kurstin as a tabula rasa: “pretentious with Rufus Wainwright, uptight with the Shins.” Because he was such a proven hitmaker with Lily Allen — with whom I think he did his best work — others think he can duplicate that magic. But in fact, what made his work with Allen so special was that his attention to ironic musical detail complemented her way with ironic narrative detail, something he couldn’t give to Rufus Wainwright or James Mercer, because ironic narrative detail isn’t what they have to offer. Maybe I mean to say is Kurstin gave to Wainwright and James Mercer of the Shins exactly what he gave to them, and rather than a tabula rasa, he’s really more akin to a mirror, which is why his work on Pink’s The Truth Above Love is as forthright and outgoing as she is. One tipoff about the way his mind works occurs in the song “True Love,” a song on the Pink record that features Lily Allen herself. When Allen comes in on the bridge, the drums pull back and keyboards are foregrounded, thus creating a perfect setting for Allen’s fluttery soprano — in fact, you could almost mistake that bridge for a moment off her own It’s Not Me, It’s You. Then when Pink re-enters for the chorus, the drums/handclaps return, the music reestablishes the anthemic tone.
I got to thinking about this because Kurstin was brought in for Tegan and Sara’s new record Heartthrob, which I heard for the first time on the train yesterday. I was a little shocked. My exposure to this duo is scant, but I do know a little about them. Identical twins, they came up through folk coffeehouses and have never been shy about their lesbianism. Over the years, their music has changed to accompany more electronic orientation, veering more toward what we used to call “new wave” rather than the current hit parade. But along comes Kurstin, and what they sound like is just that, music to rival Britney and Kesha. This wouldn’t be bad, but even Britney and especially Kesha put their personal stamp on what they do — nothing on the new record (at least on first listen) jumped out lyrically or musically; in fact, you wouldn’t even know the principals were talking about same-sex relationships unless you knew about it beforehand. It seems to me this isn’t the way a sellout record should work. There needs to be something subversive you’re getting across underneath the surface glitz, like the Liz Phair/Matrix record, but nothing like that occurs here. I would think the prime motivation of being an artist would be a freedom to your personal details, your vision. Nothing like that happens on this record — this record could be anybody’s. More on that later, when I wrap my head more around this.