“Just ‘cause you’re crazy doesn’t mean that you’re free.” This is in the first verse of “The Theory Of Relativity,” the track that opens Stars’ sixth studio release since their debut in 2001. Craziness doesn’t mean freedom—acting like a lunatic, screaming at the top of your lungs and running down the street with no clothes on may feel ‘free,’ in the sense of being loosened from a social contract, but acting free also gets you locked up in your city’s version of Bedlam. And this logic applies to Stars’ long career: Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan have always been free with their emotions, setting off cannon blasts of pure joy, sadness and drama, but they’ve always done it within the boundaries of catchy chamber pop. Each song’s desperation and triumph comes wrapped in a neat package of hooks and achingly adorable boy-girl vocals.
And beginning with 2010’s The Five Ghosts, the band began incorporating slicker production and dancier rhythms into their music. They must have sensed their last album’s success, because The North takes the same route of motorized bass lines and synths with enough muscle to sound like they’re solidly of this era. The variety, both in genre and emotion, makes it a genuinely fun listen. “Do You Want To Die Together?” is a ‘60s soda fountain ballad turned punk, and “Through The Mines” is all sweet, countryish heartbreak. Campbell and Millan have perfected their role of doomed lovers ever since the classic “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” on 2004’s Set Yourself On Fire. “I just want your past,” the pair sing on”The Loose Ends Will Make Knots,” always stalling before the inevitable explosive breakup. “I can only hope to kill you with a song” is the refrain on the lush “A Song Is A Weapon.” Their anger and sadness is gorgeous—and it must be part of the plan. Would anyone really listen to a sad song if it was too ugly to stomach?
A while ago, the soprano-tenor tension and shout-a-long choruses of Stars made them easy to group with contemporaries like Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire. Today the Black Swan to the band’s White Swan is Metric, whose recent album Synthetica uses some of the same synth textures found on The North, only with a flavor that’s less earnest and more bitter. But to me, Stars have become more and more like an unpreachy U2 over the course of their career, which would make The North their version of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Sounds ridiculous, but think about it: U2 are all about writing tunes that will please a huge mass of people. They are earnest. They do not bullshit. They know the value of a spare acoustic ballad. They know a tempo change or the addition of a single instrument is the difference between a placid listener and a listener who can't stop sobbing. And they've been enacting what they know for over 30 years with great success.
Stars know this stuff too, which is why the songs on The North are all catchy without sounding too trend-conscious, or too twee, or too anything—this is an album that proves that Stars are fully themselves, confident in their genre experimentation and fearless in the emotions they express.
Stars are one of the sentimental-pop bands of the mid ‘00s that have survived and continue to record. They do so at the same clip as other survivors, too—like Arcade Fire and the Shins and Regina Spektor and Death Cab For Cutie, Stars release an excellent disc every two or three years. So they’re in the position to continually assert and re-assert their talent for songwriting, for atmospherics, for making people feel things when other bands are content just to make people have fun. A signature sound is a powerful tool, and so is the ability to wield that sound in the right way.