One of the greatest injustices in music, in my opinion, is the cult of the lead singer. They get all the glory, display the most developed personality, and become synonymous with the band in a way no other member is able to be. Lead singers can venture off solo seamlessly, without having to redefine their image or justify the move to their fanbase. And live, they generally are the ones having the most fun.
21 Sep 2003: Mercury Lounge New York
But any privilege also carries with it a burden; as much as a lead singer can make a band, he or she can also break it. Concentration on the frontperson can create an overweening ego, while the freedom onstage can result in bombastic freewheeling and reckless posturing. I once saw a lead singer catapult into the audience and proceed to feign sexual acts with a number of very uncomfortable front-row patrons. Sure, feeling the musicians’ presence is part of the live experience, but generally that experience should fall short of a 250lb man humping your leg.
Torquil Campbell, who along with keyboardist Chris Seligman founded Stars, was a long way from sexual molestation, but in his own way assaulted the audience at the Mercury Lounge. It was embodied in humour that overstepped the boundary between biting and bitchy, charisma that beat you over the head, and hubris that transformed him from an enjoyable focal point to an egomaniacal stage-stealer. Which, given Stars understated magnificence recorded and exact delivery live, was both a huge disappointment and an aggravating nuisance.
The show started innocently enough, however. The Stars crew were cute but unassuming, a bit older and wiser than your average indie pop group and refreshingly unconcerned with giving off a particular “look.” Campbell, a slight blond man in a button-up shirt, greeted the audience with a smile and a wave. “Hello, beautiful people of New York, home of my fucked up dreams!” he spat, as “What the Snowman Learned About Love”, from their latest release Heart, began to chime behind him. It was a cheeky introduction, somewhat out of sync with the sweetness one might expect from Stars, but it was no cause for alarm. If anything, it underscored the fact that Stars are indeed more than just another band that writes pleasant, catchy fare. They are expert translators of pop, sharp and cunning at their craft, and pretty without being passive.
Still, something was overblown about Campbell’s manner. On “The Vanishing”, a bouncy pacer also off Heart, his highly affected bluster was nothing short of distracting. He gripped the mic stand dramatically, pogoed inappropriately, shook his head shamefully. The song, about leaving a lover, is moving precisely for its subtlety—like a beautiful, artfully inflicted wound. Here, Campbell brandished the knife with machismo, stuck it in with dramatic flourish, and cackled as he went.
Though they sonically borrow heavily from the Smiths, it quickly became apparent that Campbell also happens to think he’s Morrissey. But he misinterpreted the part: he botched the sex appeal, bastardized the pageantry, and clearly overlooked the irony. He dedicated the next song to “all the f*ggots, or boys who get called f*ggots,” and his statement was far more disquieting than politically confrontational or funny. “Destroyer”—here faster, darker, more demanding—was a thrilling, heated groove, showing off Stars’ abilities with wonder and zeal unless you were watching Campbell. Taking the entire thing too seriously, he shot demonic looks into the crowd, looking ready to murder us with his, umm, tambourine. At one point, he ran to one side of the stage and pushed bassist Evan Cranley, as if the energy of the music demanded that he start a fight. I can imagine many activities the music of Stars might inspire one to do, but fisticuffs doesn’t happen to be among them.
Thankfully, his bandmates provided a foil to his antics that, while making them seem all the more ridiculous, also tempered them and provided a stable backdrop. Amy Millan, who shares vocals as well as plays guitar, was calm and collected, cooing her sugary vocals with demure sparkle. Minus a few forgivable flubs, the instrumentalists were spot on, and the presence of a tour drummer new to the material was nary detectable. “Elevator Love Letter”, perhaps the strongest song on the new release, was thus soft and lovely, enchanting and highly satisfying. Even though Campbell mouthed Millan’s part when he wasn’t singing..
We all expect to get something more in the live setting than just facsimiles of our favorite songs. We want life and character, we want humanity and enthusiasm, we want to get to know the artists we love. Well, frankly, Torquil Campbell is someone I wish had remained at the mystical distance of a pleasurable voice pouring out of my stereo. Because up close and personal, he’s a little much to bear.