For 20 years now, the Montreal-based band Stars has doggedly pursued a grand, expansive vision of emotionally resonant pop. While pulling from the melodrama and sophistication of the new romantic era, with a healthy dose of irony and dance beats, Stars adds a deeply humane sensibility — this band is not afraid to get in touch with its feelings. Formed around the same time as Broken Social Scene (but before Arcade Fire), Stars was an early signing to Arts & Crafts Records, the Toronto-based rock and pop label that helped define Canadian indie music. But while Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Feist became major stars, Stars themselves remained something more of a niche taste south of the 49th parallel.
Torquil Campbell, born in England to an acting family with roots in theater and film, was raised largely in Canada, where he formed Stars with keyboard player Christopher Seligman and Evan Cranley on bass. They recorded Nightsongs in New York in 1999. Emily Haines of Metric provides a female vocal foil for Campbell’s earnest singing but, on balance, the debut is inessential, although it gives some hints about Stars’ future directions. Specifically, Amy Millan, a former actress who also sang with Broken Social Scene and had joined just in time to appear on a few tracks, helped form the band’s identity more fully. Both Nightsongs and the EP A Lot of Little Lies for the Sake of One Big Truth put a lot of cards on the table with their gently dancey cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man.” There would be a lot of Smiths worship in Stars, but the band largely moved out of this era without looking back. After Le Grand Magistery’s bankruptcy, Nightsongs went out of print and disappeared from streaming services in the U.S. Songs from the period rarely appear in the band’s repertoire.
Heart, the first Stars record by the permanent lineup, memorably begins with each band member introducing himself/herself, announcing “and this is my heart.” At moments in Heart and afterwards, the earnestness of Stars can come across as overly melodramatic and cloying. (Some have attributed that to Campbell and Millan’s background as actors, which seems an overly facile explanation. It’s clear, though, that Stars does overshare sometimes.) Like characters in a moist Victorian novel, Campbell and Milan populate their material with doomed love affairs, early deaths and unfulfilled yearning; the only essential ingredient missing is tuberculosis. With lush instrumentation and stately popcraft, they aim for the baroque at times (“The Woods” has a brass section over movie dialogue excerpts) but tend to fall into a very British 1980s sound, like aesthetes who liked Sarah Records but also liked to go clubbing; the bass lines of “Death to Death” are clearly indebted to New Order. But the wholehearted embrace of emotionality is primary. “Romantic Comedy” has a twinkling descending melody and rueful lyrics playing on the tropes of first love, lost loves and lives together — why are the ones who break our hearts and ruin our lives the ones we feel we’re meant to be with? On some of the band’s best-composed material, including the title track “Heart,” Stars follows in a lineage shared (diversely) with the Beautiful South, Human League and the B-52s — i.e., alternating male/female lead singing. Indeed, one standout on Heart is Millan’s soaring “Elevator Love Song,” a dizzying tale of love across classes. Her writing leans toward a warmth and humanity that leavens Campbell’s more morose instincts. When she married Stars bassist Evan Cranley, the band became something of a family affair.
The songs on Set Yourself on Fire, which became the Stars’ breakthrough album, are immaculately crafted and incredibly melodic. The band is at its most emotional, its most extroverted, its Starsiest. Set Yourself on Fire starts with a melodica solo and “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” a tale of misplaced desire, lost lovers and mortality, with florid strings and enough emotional grandeur for a PBS pledge drive costume drama. Call it the definitive Stars song, an impeccable big-budget apex of mid-oughts “indie pop.” “Ageless Beauty,” sung in a breathy soprano by Millan over churning guitar, is like Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays joining a more mannered Jesus and Mary Chain. String sections and bugle fanfares circle portentously around Millan’s anti-war “Celebration Guns,” while “What I’m Trying to Say” is Campbell at his most cutting. Elsewhere, the band nods gently to trip-hop and the sophisticated pop artisans of ‘80s Britain: Prefab Sprout, Everything but the Girl, Sade. A thoroughly satisfying and at times thrillingly dramatic record.
By contrast, Do You Trust Your Friends? is a clunking mess, a poorly thought-out exercise in mutual admiration for which Stars invited members of the Canadian indie world and others to remix Set Yourself on Fire. The defining tracks like “Your Ex-Lover is Dead” (altered by Final Fantasy) and “Celebration Guns” (Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene) lose their coherence in the disparate mixes. While this same exercise has worked to some degree in the past (check out owL remix Low, or the Mirah remix/remake album Joyride), it fails thoroughly as a Stars record.
Although neither is as good, In Our Bedroom After the War and The Five Ghosts build on the Set Yourself on Fire model with more grandiose emotional pop statements. Of the two, In Our Bedroom may be better on balance, but The Five Ghosts has the most resonant — and gothic — songs, tales of ghosts and haunted lovers, including “Dead Hearts,” a back-and-forth between Campbell and Millan about being surrounded by the specter of departed childhood friends. Both records go over the top, but it’s kind of excess at which Stars excels. Bedroom’s “Take Me to the Riot” is an arch and pointed dance track, calling on class divisions and resentments. “The Ghost of Genova Heights” is as florid as Torq Campbell gets, and “Midnight Coward” has an explicit Smiths quote (“sweetness, sweetness”). At 55 minutes, Bedroom is a bit too long and drags after a while, although the richly orchestrated closing title track is appropriately elegiac. Five Ghosts, a tighter 12-song, 42-minute collection, was also released in an hour-long version including an extra disc of collaborations with The Album Leaf, Of Montreal and others.
Stars returned to form with The North, a mature pop record that in some regards calls to mind Very-period Pet Shop Boys — thoughtful, yearning, tinged with regret and an autumnal sense of loss. Much of it is over programmed beats, with twinkling melodies from the synthesizers and Millan vocalising breathily in the background while Campbell sings lead. “The Theory of Relativity” and “Hold on When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It” are dance tracks that manage to offer the band’s usual measure of melodic sophistication and complexity. (“Theory of Relativity” calls out the Big Audio Dynamite song “E=MC2”!) “Backlines” is an “Ageless Beauty” throwback sung by Millan, while Campbell’s frigid title track tells a Canadian tale of immigration and forsaken homelands and loves. Plucked cello adds tension to the obliquely political “A Song Is a Weapon.” The North is excellent and thoroughly satisfying.
Initially guitar-based (notwithstanding Campbell’s fondness for brass, strings and melodica), Stars turned further toward keyboards over the years, with strong nods toward dance music and club culture, especially on No One Is Lost and There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light. Both look for joy and empathy in communal pleasures and bring the essentially humane vision of Stars to the fore. It’s hard to think of a dance floor sendup whose response lines are “Put your hands up if you ever feel afraid” and “Put your hands up if you know you’re gonna lose” (from “No One Is Lost”). Basically, Stars thinks you might just need a hug and an evening on the dance floor to feel better about your lot in life — no matter how shitty it may be. Starting with “From the Night”. No One Is Lost is thoughtful music about vapid pleasures, promoting escapism with lins like “let’s be young, let’s pretend that we’ll never die.” “Trap Door” is a pure electro-disco banger, sung venomously by Campbell with sultry saxophone that could have been borrowed from a Hall & Oates record. Millan has saucy fun on “This Is the Last Time,” which swirls like a Saint Etienne dance mix.
Fluorescent Light is not quite as strong; the beats are fine but the compositions less distinctive. The message of the shimmering-then-thumping title track matches the ethos of No One Is Lost — an evening on the town, the endorphin rush of the club and the slow wind-down, disappointment and regret of the taxi ride home.
Over the course of two decades, Stars has released several compilations and a host of EPs and singles — typically containing a Smiths cover or something comparable (check out their version of “Fairytale of New York,” the Shane McGowan-Kirsty MacColl holiday classic). The Bedroom Demos compiles early versions of the songs that ended up on In Our Bedroom After the War. Sad Robots and Lost & Found are outtakes-and-alternates collections from their respective eras, following In Our Bedroom and No One Is Lost. (Sad Robots has a marvelously overwrought live version of “Going, Going, Gone” that accentuates the song’s tone of early 20s premature nostalgia. Lost & Found has an apropos Style Council cover).
LaGuardia, issued for the band’s 20th anniversary, is a handsome two-LP vinyl greatest hits that hopscotches around the period from Heart to Fluorescent Light, from “Elevator Love Song” to the 2018 single “Ship to Shore,” ably showing the merits of Stars’ best work. The compilation is not chronological, so dance-oriented material from the later years is interspersed with earlier indie tunes. (Millan’s Bacharachy “My Favourite Book” from In Our Bedroom seems too slight for inclusion.) The live version of “Going, Going, Gone” is one much-appreciated highlight; the highlights from Five Ghosts and In Our Bedroom are scattered in with a healthy selection from Set Yourself on Fire (“Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” is tucked in the middle of Side 2 of the LP set, “Ageless Beauty” on Side 4). Just the hits, without the context of the albums, provide abundant evidence for Stars’ value as a singles band, but the decontexualization diminishes the overall impact of its most cohesive records, Set Yourself on Fire and The North.