“When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” How many bands would dare open an album with as grandiose a spoken-word imperative? Not only that, but how many band members would get their dad, who just happens to be a Shakespearean actor (Douglas Campbell) of some repute in his native Canada, to recite said pronouncement and imbue it with such quivering elan? In short, how many current artists dare to wear their tender melodramatic hearts so shamelessly visible upon their sleeves? Hell, for that matter, how many acts feature a singer with a name that sounds like a weird cross between a Grand Medieval Inquisitor and a cold remedy (Torquil, he of the thespian father)? The answer: one band, just this one; hailing from Montreal with the quietly unflappable name of Stars, and suggestive of bright vibrant things that, let us hope, “will always be a light” (“Ageless Beauty”).
Set Yourself on Fire is their third album, and while it closely follows the twee romanticism of their gorgeous sophomore record, Heart, it also consolidates the lover’s decree so compellingly outlined there. Stars have declared themselves partisan fighters in what they have dubbed the “soft revolution”, which may sound like a nebulous manifesto, but there is nothing vague about the sweet ache running like candy stripes throughout the confectioner’s swirl of their endearing electro chamber pop.
“Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” arrives frothing with the aforementioned urge to cleanse (what? A failed love affair? Your life?) via full-immersion immolation… only to be sidetracked into abject surrender by pastoral helices of strings, one deep spine-shuddering cello, and that pure helpless moment when Amy Millan’s careful, spearmint voice takes up the reins from Campbell’s playful smartasshattery. This kind of baroque vignette would be insufferable if not for the pointed lack of regret, the sheer coolness of their regard (“All of that time you thought I was sad / I was trying to remember your name”) ultimately damming up the stream of heartfelt candor. In place of a loud/quiet dynamic, we have freeze/thaw instead.
It’s these little touches—a harmony here, a rhythmic hiccup there, a brass caress or a soft string coda—that punctuate the potentially stillborn sentiments and rescue Stars from becoming just another ho-hum layer in the homogenized indie pop landscape. Examples abound. Such as the breezy synth pop of the title track unexpectedly dissolving into an afterthought of stunning beauty, quietly suggestive of the evocative moment a summer’s day settles into its still blue-gold twilight, the blurred lights of traffic—wistful, bittersweet—traversing a deepening background. Or the fluttering chorus of voices at the midpoint of “Ageless Beauty”, reminiscent of mid-‘80s Cure, taking off like a cadre of sad pigeons on an overpass, willing themselves heavenwards. Or the smoky interchange between Amy and Torquil on “The Big Fight”—less a call-and-response than a lazy signal-and-hint. Or the thin slash of guitar behind the trashy (alright, Garbage-y) electro beats of “What I’m Trying to Say”. Or the distorted exclamation on “One More Night” that dresses the single word “again” in sudden sharp outrage.
You get the idea.
These revolutionaries may be soft, but they’re no pushovers. They may be so mad at George W. Bush that they “hope [his] drunken daughters are gay” (“He Lied About Death”, clearly the most absurd song on the record), but they are astute enough to balance such prickly gaucheness with the simple elegiac pacifism of a “Celebration Guns”, a pensive chamber pop gem.
Paradoxically, as the ‘90s recede more completely than we ever could have imagined, the shadow cast by My Bloody Valentine refuses to recede at quite the same rate. Accordingly, even Stars can’t avoid an homage of sorts, “Ageless Beauty” roiling with Millan’s passable Belinda Butcher mimicry and the obligatory skirmishes between whirling, turbulent layers of guitar.
So, good for Stars. Life, death, love, pain, art, sex, ice and intoxication, then. I’d say that pretty much covers it.
If this record doesn’t quite match Heart, it’s a close-run thing. Revisiting well-trodden quarter-century-old ground—by the likes of St. Etienne, New Order, Belle and Sebastian, Prefab Sprout, Momus, the Smiths—it nonetheless manages to offer something the merest shade distinct from those touch points, yet it’s enough. If there are criticisms, it’s that the album is somewhat front loaded, and that nothing quite reaches the heart-melting heights of an “Elevator Love Letter” or a “Look Up”; which, given the overall incandescence of Set Yourself on Fire, is praising with faint damnation, quite honestly.