“Take the weakest thing in you / And then beat the bastards with it,” Torquil Campbell sings on The North‘s “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”, distilling his band’s greatest strength into a single inspiring line. In the best Stars songs, weakness isn’t overcome, but rather fetishized and magnified into theater. Since the band’s beginnings over a decade ago, Stars have beaten the bastards with regret, unrequited love, and, perhaps trickiest of all, an unusually affecting nostalgia. Far from superficial retromania, the looking backwards in Stars songs is, first and foremost, personal longing that just happens to be timestamped with era specificity. The reference to “Hand in Glove” on “Walls” and the undeniable New Order influence on “Hold On When You Get Love…” aren’t tacked on, but part of a greater aesthetic.
The approximate ages of the band members combined with these references cements the feeling that nothing summons such potent nostalgia for them as their teen years. Neko Case may sing about holding on to that teenage feeling, but Campbell and his bandmates can’t seem to let it go. On 2003’s Set Yourself On Fire, one of Campbell’s tragically romantic narrators fixates on a “Reunion” with an adolescent flame, and on The North‘s first single, “The Theory of Relativity”, a fast talker who was a “total devastator” in tenth grade stacks up his past to the present and throws in an era-appropriate Big Audio Dynamite reference for good measure. Even when the subjects of their songs have been substantially more adult, Stars have always shined brightest when investing their problems with an adolescent scope, where every emotional wound feels deep and eternal. The band arguably first perfected this formula on Set Yourself on Fire‘s standout “Your Ex-Lover is Dead” on which Campbell and Amy Millan’s ostensibly “over it” one-night-standees silently review their no-strings-attached arrangement in a taxi, as the strings insist otherwise with passionate swells. If Set Yourself on Fire was black and white melodrama, though, 2007’s marvelous In Our Bedroom After the War, was a full-on spectacle in Technicolor. Lurid, blatantly emotional, and musically omnivorous, In Our Bedroom After the War encompassed disco-era Bee Gees, organic R&B, orchestral pop, epic guitar rock, and more. In Stars’ hands, piano ballads about gay soccer hooligans could sound like Les Misérables updates, and a failed personal ad hookup could sound as fatal as a murder ballad.
But, to paraphrase the band, when there’s nothing left to burn, you apparently have to set yourself on autopilot. Stars’ last album, 2010’s The Five Ghosts saw Campbell, Millan, Chris Seligman, Evan Cranley, and Pat McGee retreating somewhat to the less dynamic electronic textures of their earliest releases, and, while it was redeemed considerably by some of Millan’s strongest vocal leads, it was the first time in years that a Stars album could be called timid.
On The North, the band does much better at forcing its concerns through the filter of big emotion, yet it’s still plagued by some of the same tasteful understatement as The Five Ghosts, an unfortunate irony considering the transformative power the band assigns to music on both “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It” and “A Song Is a Weapon”. Even if its lyric had been developed beyond trite breakup metaphors, “The Loose Ends Will Make Knots” would still sound like b-side-level Death Cab for Cutie. “Lights Changing Colour” and “Progress” are, respectively, a drab ballad and a one-note electro-pop tune; their shortcomings are even more blatant in light of “Walls”, the album closer that splits the difference between superior versions of the two styles.
The band remains at its most compelling when it goes forcefully gaudy and sentimental, even when it means retreading familiar ground. “Backlines” follows in the straightforward tradition of Millan-sung rockers “Ageless Beauty” and “Fixed”, and it’s just as tuneful, engaging, and necessary. “The Theory of Relativity” may echo previous synth-powered dance-influenced rockers like “The Night Starts Here” and “We Don’t Want Your Body”, but Campbell’s snarky character-acting on lines like “We got a rock DJ / We got a total fuckin’ alcoholic / We got a thing they call a cyber girl / A warm ovation please / For the dude who sold us Ecstacy / He’s building homes now in the new third world” is too good to miss. The ’50s style duet, “Do You Want to Die Together?” has a fantastic transition that skirts the edges of too much — a modest slap-back echo on the guitar gives way to crunchy distortion on the chorus. But if the best and worst songs on The North prove anything, it’s that Stars should get back to narrowly avoiding “too much” full time.