Stars – The North



Stars, the Toronto five-piece of genuine heartbreak royalty, sound decidedly invigorated and joyous on their sixth album, The North. Thankfully, they refueled without sacrificing the doe-eyed wonder, aching introspection and lovelorn chronicling that amounted to an essential voice to so many fans for more than a decade.

The album (fairly unsurprisingly) opens with crackling and the ringing of a harbor bell as a lone voice states, “Well, the only way I see this happening is, uh, in an extended ride (pause) north.” Within seconds, the electronic rhythm kicks in and gives way to a blanket of glitzy synth, and the positively jubilant confection of “The Theory of Relativity” takes a giddy stronghold on every facet of your being. It’s one of the outright gems on an album delightfully full of strong songs; But, most importantly, it puts Stars’ welcome stamp of rejuvenation and ability to transport the listener to somewhere other than he currently is right from the get-go.

Stars The North

Torq Campbell takes the reins of the verses on “The Theory of Relativity,” and he makes it obvious up front that he’s packing a sharp wit with and a light-hearted touch to balance out his tried-and-true leanings of anguish and theatricality.  In the first verse, Campbell bluntly says, “Now that you’ve grown so wise / Use that head and stop to think a little / Just ‘cause you’re crazy doesn’t mean that you’re free.” He reminisces about being “a total devastator” in “lame grade ten,” laments that it can’t be ’93 forever, and calls for “a warm ovation for the dude who sold us ecstasy / he’s building homes now in the new third world.” It’s a deeply rewarding and addictive pop song with heart, wit, and a soaring melody, and it’s a prime example of the heights Stars take the listener away to with their strongest work.

Amy Millan takes the vocal lead on the single “Backlines,” and it’s a catchy number with a driving chorus and a sweet, if short-lived, string bridge, but it’s one of the less fulfilling tracks on the album. It certainly suffers in sequencing wedged between the compulsive grandiosity of “The Theory of Relativity” and the stark beauty of the hushed title track. Where “Backlines” fails to fully distinguish itself from past singles from Stars’ catalog like The Five Ghosts’ “I Died So I Could Haunt You” or Set Yourself on Fire’s “Ageless Beauty,” “The North” is a mesmerizing portrait of a wayward soul lost in an opaque, bitter locale delivered with a gentle warmth that makes the song a pure album highlight.

“Hold on When You Get Love and Let Go When You Get It” is another dance beat-driven powerhouse benefited by exquisite production, pounding rhythm, and Campbell’s confident delivery of verses like, “The world won’t listen to this song / And the radio won’t play it / But if you like it sing along / Sing ‘cause you don’t know how to say it.” The towering chorus solidifies the song’s excellence with Campbell answering “Hold on when you get love” and “Let go when you give it” to Millan’s repeated query of “What do I do when I get lonely?”

The chorus of “Through the Mines” careens on the balanced attack of a wonderfully driving guitar lead and Millan’s patented feathery vocals. It’s followed by the magnificent “Do You Want to Die Together?,”  a ‘50s-style, waltzing call and response between Campbell and Millan with bombastic percussion and a menacing guitar in the gargantuan chorus. The song snakes away back into Millan’s prettily lilting vocals on “Lights Changing Colour,” as she begs, “remember how you held my hand.”

As expertly crafted as the arrangements are up to this point in the album, “The Loose Ends Will Make Knots” showcases a deeper layer of production genius (courtesy of Stars, Graham Lessard, and Marcus Paquin) on The North.  Gentle synth layers swarm the steady beat, adventurously percussive strokes clang in the background, and whooshes of fuzz whiz in and out behind the vocals. At the core of it all, Campbell and Millan skillfully pick up each other’s final breaths of poetic introspection, often dancing atop each other, blurring the vocal divide to, as the title says, fashion the loose ends of lone voices into harmonic knots.

Campbell summons a bit of the seething anger that bled into the dense heartache on Stars’ career best album up to this point, Set Yourself on Fire, for “A Song Is a Weapon,” and its parting shot of “I’ve got one shot to kill you with this song.” The steady electro beat and gorgeous chorus of “Progress,” with Millan wondering aloud, “Could you be the one that changes everything?” is the loudest The North gets from here in, but there’s a wealth of life to be found in the ballads “The 400” and “Walls.”

“The 400” unmistakably opens with sparse piano and static of Death Cab for Cutie’s masterful “Transatlanticism,” and it finds Stars offering up a ballad of supreme beauty with the mantra “It has to go right this time,” haunting minor keys, and harp flourishes. Millan and Campbell shine yet again with their dramatic call and response on “Walls,” with their backs up against the walls of harp interludes, hazy static, and a mammoth, throbbing synth beat. Even with the glorious orchestration, Campbell and Millan take center stage and steal the show by reminiscing about dancing to “Hand in Glove,” before signing off with the ageless drama of “You can take me, and you can have me, but can you make me happy?”

Over the course of twelve songs and a fully rewarding 44-minute running time, Stars sound fresher and more vital than they have in years. Stars’ compositions have always aspired to be equal parts enjoyment, enrichment, and drama.  On The North, the delicious, stirring cocktails are the richest, most satisfying concoctions the north-of-the-border bartenders have served up since Set Yourself on Fire.  Only time will tell if The North legitimately stands as Stars’ finest hour, but it’s evident right off the bat that this collection will forever hang around the top shelf.

Stream The North below:

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