My weakness, please forgive it
It’s a bit of a misnomer, I think, to say that The North is a return to form for Montreal band Stars. Yet I expect that’s what the over-riding theme behind the coverage of this record will be.
In a sense I get it. If you recall, I wasn’t exactly taken with their last album, the Polaris Prize-nominated The Five Ghosts. Seeing the band live recently for the first time since that record was released kind of cemented where my issues with the album stem from. See, in my mind the appeal of Stars has always been their humanity. Their lyrical focus has and likely always will be on the things we obsess most about: love and sex (granted, they do occasional roam into war and politics but I think the overt songs like “He Lied About Death” pale drastically in comparison to those that use the abstract of war to heighten the drama of the love and sex). That humanity has often been exemplified by equally dramatic arrangements, usually including soaring strings or sombre piano. That musical shorthand has always been well-utilized in this group, although in the hands of less talented arrangers than Evan Cranley and Chris Seligman those well-worn elements could have a more disingenuous or less-impactful presence. To be certain they tug at the heart-strings but that’s basically what every Stars song is meant to do. But The Five Ghosts lacked a lot of the warmth that is usually inherent in those elements, focusing an awful lot on death and despair; the record ends with the assertion, “Winter lives in my bones. It’s all I’ve ever known.” It sums up so much of the album, not only its aesthetic coldness and distance but also its coldness and distance to every other Stars album.
That’s where The North comes in. Yes, it hews closer in nearly every way to the band’s other records but that’s neither a bad thing nor a cop-out. This is their middle ground, the spot they’re at home in. That level of comfort is more than acceptable. Really, on the whole the band has gotten a lot better at integrating their disparate sides. Those rock songs that Millan puts so much vigor into are much more comfortably integrated with the synth-pop that seems to be their over-riding focus these days. Perhaps it’s an indication of the band’s comfort level; in between their tours and album releases their core members are constantly creating and issuing music under their various side projects like Dead Child Star and Memphis but they seem so self-assured in their core principles they have no trouble getting back together as Stars and advancing their agenda to the next level.
So needless to say the keyboards that proved so pervasive on the last record aren’t done away with by any stretch of the imagination but they are repurposed; from the opening notes of “The Theory Of Relativity” it’s clear this album will be imbued more with dance music and 80s pop tropes than the distance that defined The Five Ghosts. It’s a good transition between that record and the songs to come, featuring hard rolling synths, distorted bass, and crisply-synthesized percussion.
“Backlines” is a prototypical Amy Milan jam, recalling some fan favourites like “Ageless Beauty” thanks to its persistent, guitar-centric arrangement. As usual Millan provides numerous highlights, like the heady mix of acoustic and electric guitars combining with swirling synth sounds on “In The Mines.” Or “Lights Changing Colour,” which boasts a busy mix of sounds despite being a relatively downtrodden and sombre number. Far from playing against type, the combined sounds feel as organic as the first time I heard “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead.” Campbell’s contributions continue his legacy of hope, pleading on “The Loose Ends Will Make Knots” that “all has not been lost.” “A Song Is A Weapon,” however, sees the return of his anti-George W. Bush sentiment sentiment in full force; while he doesn’t name the ex-president specifically he alludes to him, hoping “I can only hope to kill you with this song.” Yikes.
If you want to consider the past and the future of Stars look no further than “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It,” one of the most prototypically Stars-y songs since their electronically-heavy debut. Their romanticism is here in full force as Campbell and Millan implore the listener to recognize and see love, true love, as a real priority and to treat it as such. There’s a point during the song that Campbell intones, “It’s a pretty melody, it might help you through the night time, but it doesn’t make it easy to leave the party at the right time.” Detractors might say that’s a pretty good explanation of the band’s sound itself. I think he sums it up better just a bit later, though: “The world wont listen to this song and the radio wont play it but if you like it sing along. Sing ’cause you don’t know how to say it.” Campbell is often slagged by detractors for being overblown, pretentious, or melodramatic in his stage performance but he damn sure knows how to express himself in song.
The take-away from The North isn’t so much that the band has forgotten the progression that brought it to The Five Ghosts or that it’s retreating to the more familiar territory that birthed its biggest successes. The North is the spring to The Five Ghosts frigid winter. The sun is rising in their hearts again and they’re once more sharing in the joy and wonderment of life that we all take for granted. For all of Torquil Campbell’s grandiosity and posturing (as it’s perceived by some) I have the sense that he feels as though he’s been given a mission to help us all feel that summer in our hearts. Anyone who says romanticism is dead need only listen to The North to know that as long as Stars are around that will never really be the case.
11/09 – Victoria, BC – Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre
11/10 – Vancouver, BC – Rogers Arena
11/12 – Kelowna, BC – Prospera Place
11/14 – Calgary, AB – Stampede Corall
11/15 – Edmonton, AB – Rexall Place
11/17 – Winnipeg, MB – MTS Centre
11/19 – London, ON – John Labatt Centre
11/23 – Kingston, ON – KROQ Centre
11/24 – Toronto, ON – Air Canada Centre