Which came first: the concept or the album? Some bands begin with a premise (or gimmick), a sheaf of blank pages, and proceed to fill them out accordingly. Others look at their finished product and concoct elaborate theories as to what connects the disparate ideas. San Francisco’s For Stars had the concept for ...It Falls Apart sneak up on them during the process of putting it all together. What began as a big, bright pop record got thrown around every which way until the contents within reflected the title. For Stars’ fourth release is the sound of beauty coming unhinged. Halfway through a year in which much of the world threatens to do the same, ...It Falls Apart is on the short-list for must-listens.
Like most great albums, ...It Falls Apart reminds the listener of its various influences, but without theft or shallow imitation. Reference points here may include the Flaming Lips, Nina Simone, San Francisco contemporaries Red House Painters, ‘80s dream-pop, Radiohead, etc. The eight song titles read like chapters of a Calvino novel: “I Should Have Told You”, “Calm Down Baby”, “It Doesn’t Really Matter”, “In the End”, “Shattered Glass”, “Reminds You”, “If It Falls Apart”, “Lend Out Your Love”. For a film comparison, this album could also function as the perfect soundtrack to Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as bits of songs melt away like details from memory. But all of this is secondary to For Stars’ own muse, whatever dark and lovely creature that may be.
“You should’ve seen her when it all began,” Carlos Forster sings on the opener, after twin engines of warbling guitar and church organ have already flared up and out for the first time. Forster’s voice floats high above the song, moving in and out of falsetto. His voice is thin yet strong, and he does it justice by pushing the melodies into territories not covered by the other instruments. “I took her down and I made her cry,” he continues, and later, “I don’t deserve all these things that I own / But I’m not letting go.” The songs juxtapose direct, declaratory lyrics with complex and evocative musical environments. The results translate the confusion and hurt of heartbreak with more precision than if Morrissey popped a toddler’s balloon.
“Calm Down Baby.” follows the fadeout of the opening track with hushed keyboards and distant, tapped percussion as the relationship in question continues to unravel. “Friends again / You’re just my friend again / ... There’s a million things I’d rather be than your friend.” Damn, that hurts. Add it to the list of lyrics that are so simple and true you can’t believe you’ve not heard them before. Where the lyrics are borderline emo-confessional, imagery is left to the music—which takes innumerable twists and turns over the album’s 35-plus minutes, none of which seem garish or ornamental. The quiet tension at the beginning of “Calm Down Baby” is like a tidal wave building, which finally breaks when Dan Paris’s organ surges forward over Will Waghorn’s drums and the song becomes discordant as it’s knocked about. The instrumental layers are then reduced back to a handful as Forster pleads, “Don’t go, baby,” as if regretting the emotional hurricane his band just unleashed on his lover.
As ...It Falls Apart plays out it becomes increasingly more adventurous and out of its gourd. “In the End” weaves glassy piano textures with static-y sampled jazz saxophones and vocals that run the gamut from lounge-smooth to processed-harsh. If it sounds like a giant scrambled mess, it most definitely is, but it’s also honest and unafraid experimentation, from the over-too-soon instrumental of “Remind You”. to the sprawling, seven-minute “If It Falls Apart”. But to give away all the juicy details would be like spoiling a short story, one in which a world is contained, and, though tragic, you feel compelled to visit again and again.