Remember that time when the band Stars released one of the single greatest pop songs in the past five years and almost nobody knew about it? You don’t? Well guess what: sadly, you’re not the only one.
After their 2004 album Set Yourself on Fire became somewhat of an indie classic in its own right, the band left the Arts & Crafts label to release 2010’s slightly more melancholic The Five Ghosts before returning to the big league’s with 2012’s well-received The North. While that album did get their best-ever chart rankings in both the U.S. and their homeland of Canada, the album still felt strangely slept-on, greeted with the usual bouts of good-but-not-life-changing critical praise and some enthusiastic concert dates that only appealed to their existing fanbase.
What’s so odd about that whole affair is the fact that one of the album’s singles just so happened to be an incredible little number called “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It“, a towering album highlight if there ever was one. The song is danceable, emotional, catchy, and cathartic all in the same breath, a flawless bolt of aural pleasure that was truly one of the best standalone pop singles released in years. It didn’t win a ton of new fans, but anyone who heard it knew that even with “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” and “Elevator Love Letter” having already guaranteed Stars’ entry into the Indie Rock Hall of Fame, Torquil Campbell, Amy Millan, and Evan Cranley were still capable of cranking out quiet little masterpieces even without the fanfare some of their likeminded peers may have received.
Therefore, it’s no real surprise that No One Is Lost, instead of expanding on the skyscraping hooks and refined songcraft that defined The North, instead aims to be the soundtrack of every bedroom dance party you are to have for the next two years, it’s joyous synths made bright and peppy, with the tempos always hovering on “mid-” and the whole affair radiating warmth in a bright Day-Glo color. The only problem with this whole groovy arrangement is that over the course of a whole album with little deviation in pace or tone, the whole thing comes off as a monochromatic, in the process blurring some truly worthwhile moments.
“Let’s be young / Let’s pretend that we never will die,” Millan sings on opener “From the Night”, her cooed celebration of youth adorned with rhythm guitars that have been given that perfect disco-echo sheen. While Stars’ discography has been littered with songs dealing with love from just about every angle, the lens that No One Is Lost has adopted is one of naivety and ignorance, as if drawn from the perspective of a high-school age youth who hasn’t been fully tainted by the pangs of cynicism. At times, this narrative can lead to some shallow musings. “You can’t have love if you can’t have hate” is the kind of prom-night poetry that drips from “Turn It Up”. There’s also awkward storyline setups; the song “Look Away” promises we’ll hear “Two sides to three stories”. A lot of these lines, unfortunately, feel deliberate, with these characters getting lost in in the throes of recounting their heartbreak as the band’s hushed beats and sly grooves dance around these narratives. These are all corsage-ready sentiments, but obviously so. The band don’t lose sight of their intentions, and as such, a great majority of these songs feel emotionally grounded, even if there are no great revelations to be found within them.
Although never as overt as the John Hughes-worship that peppered M83’s great Saturdays = Youth album, Stars do incorporate some nice ’80s touches into their sonic document of young romance, some songs borrowing the raw guitar energy of ‘Til Tuesday (catch the ending to “No Better Place”), others pulling up disparate elements from Yaz’s discography (“Look Away”). The album’s best song, however, is the straight-up electro-thumper that is “Trap Door”, which feels like a UK chart-topper from an alternate early ’90s universe and just so happens to feature the most playful lyrics the band has ever penned (“He told me he was young / I said ‘Well what is that good for?'”). The track’s snide narrator perfectly encapsulating the humor that has become one of the most underappreciated elements in the band’s oeuvre.
Yet even with its mirrorball epiphanies, No One Is Lost again stays away from making grand statements, the almost-profundity of tracks like the mellow strummer “A Stranger” getting lost in the band’s sometimes too-inviting production. The warm melodies and beds of synths are so pleasing to the ear that almost none of the member’s vocals make an impactful landing. It’s almost as if the group is absolutely afraid of having a single second of the album not be filled with some sort of emotive instrumentation. No One Is Lost is undoubtedly a fun album, but it very much gets lost in its own narrative, the disc’s constant, unyielding momentum ultimately preventing some of its great lines from landing and stopping some of the more fascinating sonic detours from making a real impression on the listener.
Especially following the incredible highlights from The North, it’s hard for No One Is Lost, clear as its goal may be, to distinguish itself on an individual song-by-song basis. The entire disc is pleasing to listen to even if a great majority of its hooks can’t be recalled less than an hour after the closing title track finishes playing. No One Is Lost still a grand listen and worthwhile for fans of the band or those partial to stories of star-crossed love in general. And in the end, modest victories are still counted as victories, and there isn’t a damn thing wrong with that.