No matter in what medium it's first released, the new Stars album contains two of the absolute best pop songs of the year -- and the rest ain't half bad, either.
Stars surprised everyone with a note on the Arts & Crafts website a few weeks ago, announcing the digital release of their fourth album, In Our Bedroom After the War, just four days after the band had received the final mastered version. The economic wisdom of doing this may be debatable (we'll have to wait until September, when the physical CD will be released, to find out), but the sentiment's appreciated: the accelerated digital release is supposed to give fans a legal alternative to downloading the album via leaked promotional copies. At the least, releasing the album like this communicates to fans how excited the band presumably is about their album -- an excitement easily transmitted to fans themselves.
Not that the album needs to rely on attitudinal tricks like this. In Our Bedroom After the War is bookended by two remarkable pop songs. The first single, "The Night Starts Here", is a classic Stars single in the tradition of "Ageless Beauty". The song is built off a chugging strings-and-synths loop (later, heavier bass notes provide an added menace) and, trading male-female vocals, achieves a light-stepped propulsion despite its simplicity. The vocals here, and indeed throughout In Our Bedroom are more prominent than on previous Stars albums; this may momentarily throw established fans, but stick with it – Stars aren't going mainstream, don't worry. The other bookend is the title track, "In Our Bedroom After the War". It has to be one of the best pop songs of the year, astounding in its structural simplicity and confident in its large-stroke drama and romanticism. There's a simple message of hope:
Wake up, say 'Good Morning' to
That sleepy person lying next to you
If there's no-one there, then there's no-one there
But at least the war is over
This is stated within the first seconds over simple block chords in the piano. That texture expands, of course, to a dense, overpowering climax some six minutes later. The lyrics paint increasingly dark vignettes, a now-recognizable lyrical trope for the band. But like the New Pornographers' "Adventures in Solitude" from their new album, the song provides the "we'll be there for you" consolation; however, "In Our Bedroom" looks further forward, finding a chugging optimism in the title phrase before spinning off into a joyous orchestral cacophony. I thought I heard bells in there somewhere -- the celebration deserves it.
Amy Millan may not have reached the popular heights of Feist in the indie-frontwomen-gone-solo stakes, but her debut solo effort Honey From the Tombs had its moments -- "Skinny Boy" still hits just the right note of romance and regret. Millan's country-oriented solo sensibility informs just one song on In Our Bedroom, the Norah Jones-esque "My Favourite Book". It's 95% pop, 5% inventive (that one unexpected chord change verse-to-pre-chorus), but you'd never find its short baroque interlude on a mainstream pop song, and that alone is cause for celebration. And you get the feeling, listening to this album, that Millan's solo experience has helped Stars mature as songwriters, too -- there's less affect, more emotion, everywhere on In Our Bedroom.
The band, from the beginning surrounding themselves with the language of revolution, finds itself more interested here in characters in and out of love. Revolution may be around somewhere in the background, but like on Jens Lekman's "Do You Remember the Riots", it's a literary device rather than a specific call to arms. Torquil Campbell's voice may be slightly too pretty for the lyrical content of "Barricades" but the song still floats sweetly by with piano and harmonica an oddly serene accompaniment for a song, essentially, about a guy whose unrequited love is for a protester who bashes people. Better is "Take Me to the Riot" with its upbeat dance-rock chug, though whether Campbell is singing about an actual riot or just a typical night out surrounded by the vacuity of drunk/drugged youth is a mystery.
There are more delights on In Our Bedroom After the War -- listen for the lyrical device that neatly closes the unassuming, unexpectedly sad ballad "Personal" -- but I'll leave you to discover them for yourself. If you like Stars, or intelligent pop, you'll discover something in just about every song here. This is more than a fitting follow-up to the group's breakthrough Set Yourself On Fire, whether you get to it digitally now or in hard copy at the end of September.