Montreal’s Stars have never been afraid to dip their collective toes in the saccharine, sparkling waters of twee, and that’s largely what endears them to their fans. Penning intricate, often conversational pieces about desire, passion, rebellion and death, their songs provide a sweet tincture for an apathetic heart. An uncomfortable feeling, then, is what might creep over the listener on hearing the band’s latest work, The Five Ghosts, flecked as it is with uncharacteristically angular pop hooks and moments of dry cynicism.
Stars have always appealed to the romantic and adventurous sensibilities of those sensitive enough to take notice, but that isn’t to say they habitually shear their songs of rougher edges. The delicate balancing act of creating appropriately touching pieces that are also picaresque, wry and catchy is what Stars have built their career on, and in light of this those alienating moments of this album shouldn’t be too unexpected but their frequency and potency is troubling.
The band is nestled around the pairing of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan – a heady combination of the former’s smooth elocution and the latter’s feathery crooning. This collaborative spirit is very much evident on the band’s latest offering, where Campbell’s vocals lay down excruciatingly heartfelt frameworks for Millan’s whimsical voice to encircle. This trick is most evident on starting point, ‘Dead Hearts’, a classic slice of what Stars do best. Millan and Campbell to-and-fro a gentle lullaby over fragile guitar which bursts into a dramatic string accompaniment at each chorus – every bit as delightful as it is familiar.
Noticeably absent, however, is a spoken-word, conceptual introduction, the likes of which have been a part of every opening track in Stars’ oeuvre, setting the tone for the album to come. Be it love in the face of adversity on 2008′s In Our Bedroom After The War or passion and rebellion on their 2005 breakthrough Set Yourself On Fire, these openers are a staple and the omission here weighs heavy on the album, casting it into an initial identity crisis that sadly remains in evidence throughout.
Third track ‘I Died So I Could Haunt You’ begins charmingly enough with a dainty build up over uplifting electric guitar as Campbell sings, “Thousands of ghosts in the daylight / walking through my hometown square.” Millan joins in along with Pat McGee’s energetic drumming, and thematically it appears to be homely enough territory, continuing the allegory of loneliness and distance. But things soon grind to a juddering halt. The chorus is an ugly duet over staccato, upbeat sounds reminiscent of a particularly homogenised brand of indie-pop that leaves an unpleasant taste, like a very Stars-esque twisted romance as if performed by total strangers.
This dizzying change in pace is again evident in ‘We Don’t Want Your Body’ as a strangely cheerful and industrial intro gives way to a cheeky Campbell singing with such glee that you can almost hear the grin: “Knock shop in Oxford Street / one where the vampires meet / …platforms, white teeth, a stupid hat.” It promises to be yet another of Stars’ amusing, if cutting, observations about human behaviour, but no sooner has a mock-gothic synthesised organ joined the mix than the dire chorus rears its head. A shockingly danceable mess of beats, cavalier lyrics about attempted date-rape, and a total waste of Millan’s unique voice, it brands itself as Stars’ most populist song to date and, while lyrically amusing, is extremely alienating on an album featuring moments of heartfelt shoegazing.
Indeed, fans eagerly awaiting their next dose of sentimentality won’t go away completely disappointed. First single ‘Fixed’ is a wistful indie-pop anthem reminiscent of Stars’ own ‘Ageless Beauty’ and provides an abrupt cuff about the ears to keep things lively, while ‘Changes’ is a slow-burning gem that provides a satin backdrop for Millan as heartbreaking chanteuse, recalling Sol Seppy for the mellow cloud of tragedy surrounding the piece. Most other tracks, however, fade into the formulaic or, as in the case of ‘The Last Song Ever Written’, are swallowed in their own overbearingly maudlin tone.
Reaching moments of greatness that are bewilderingly muddled up with such mediocrity, The Five Ghosts is frustrating and unsatisfying, but not terrible. In truth, it does not feel like a Stars album but rather, like the eponymous spectres, a handful of shimmering glimpses of the band that lay just out of reach.
[Vagrant; June 21, 2010]