As much as a Stars fan as I’d been in the past, I was never able to hide my disappointment about their last record. The Five Ghosts poured an ice-cold bucket of water all over glowing hot flames of Set Yourself on Fire and In Our Bedroom After The War, obliterating any traces of the skyward trajectory the band had been on. In my opinion, the business of launching their own music label (Soft Revolution) was getting in the way of making quality music for the label to put out. The Five Ghosts was a spotty affair with far too little to recommend it to fans new and old alike.
Thankfully, it was just a hiccup, and hiccups go away eventually. The dreary grey drapes that hung heavy over The Five Ghosts have been taken down on The North and Stars are letting the sun back into their world (maybe thanks in part to the birth of Amy Millan and Chris Seligman’s daughter?). And that world has grown ten-fold; where other Stars albums felt narrowed by thematic unity, The North is free from any kind of real concept. As Torquil Campbel recently told Under The Radar magazine, they’ve taken “all the themes that we’ve dealt with over the years, and all the sonic ideas, and express exactly who we are as a band and what we’ve arrived at as our sound and our story.” So whether you’re a fan of the fiery intensity of Set Yourself On Fire, the tender intimacy of Heart, or even the maudlin moodiness of The Five Ghosts, you’ll find something to gravitate to on The North.
The musical formula of previous successes hasn’t changed: electro-pop shot through with shimmering guitars, and a showcase for the back-and-forth vocal interplay of Campbell and Millan are still the building blocks of The North. The difference is in the blueprints, the songwriting. Campbell refers to love, life and songwriting a fair bit throughout, most directly on “A Song Is A Weapon” when he admits that he’s only “got one shot to kill you with a song” to a former lover who’s an expert in keeping “a straight face when you’re telling all those lies”. On “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”, he’s taking his own advice: “The world won’t 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”. When words fail you, sing, and through the power of song, you’ll be able to express yourself.
Nowhere on the album does Campbell express himself better than on the album’s penultimate track, “The 400”. Using the Ontario highway that’s a gateway to cottage country as the last trip for a failing relationship, the implication is that “the north” is the magical, mystical place where possibilities branch out like dividing roads, and you’ll never find yourself driving ’round in circles. It mirrors Stars’ own journey to The North; they’ve traveled familiar roads on this record without repeating themselves, and have arrived at a better place from where they started out.
The North is released today on Soft Revolution Records.