Listening to Stars' new album is like being wrapped in a warm, comforting blanket. A catchy synth-pop blanket where our biggest concerns are who we're dating, not what's going on in the world at large.
Let’s start with full disclosure. Somehow I’ve managed to go through the 21st century without ever listening to Stars, even though their synth-infused indie pop is right in my musical wheelhouse. So, readers, this will not be a review that references earlier Stars albums or songs. That being said, I really enjoyed this record. Much of There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light is like being wrapped in a warm, comforting musical blanket. And there’s much to be said here in late 2017 for an album that allows a listener to drift away into a feel-good, happy place for 50 minutes.
But there are some songs that stand out a bit. De facto title track “Fluorescent Light” is upbeat and huge in tone even as it talks about a failing relationship. Singer Torquil Campbell starts the song with lyrics about the night and yellow taxis waiting for a party to end. He sings over sparse, warm piano chords and intermittent snare drum rolls. The building music comes to a halt when Amy Millan comes in, a wash of keyboards putting everything else on pause when she sings. As Campbell returns and the duo harmonize the song crests into a huge, belt it out chorus: “So come out with me tonight / Out with me tonight / No one falls in love under fluorescent light.” The rest of the lyrics twist time as the couple recounts moments from their relationship and seem to be celebrating one last night out together. The chorus hits hard every time, but the bridge may be the highlight of the song. As Campbell interrupts the chorus to sing, “3 AM and the lights go on / In the middle of the chorus they turn off our song / Everyone is wasted, everyone’s alive / We hail a yellow taxi and we drive, drive, drive,” the rest of the music falls away except for slow piano chords. It’s a great juxtaposition of lyrics and music and drops the beat at the exact point of maximum impact. That makes the final chorus even more effective.
The most compelling track on the album is “Real Thing”, which starts as a peppy, four on the floor synthpop song. Millan sings quietly as the music gradually builds. And then, at the 30-second mark, the song shifts time signatures to an equally upbeat 6/8. That is a total surprise, and it’s highly effective. The song goes back to the 4/4 beat for a guitar solo and second verse but goes back again when the chorus comes around. A subtle guitar line plays eighth notes under the chorus, mirroring the hi-hat cymbal beat and giving the 6/8 section a strong feeling of motion.
Album closer “Wanderers”, on the other hand, is notable for how it takes Stars’ basic formula and executes it so well. Quiet verses from Millan are contrasted with a widescreen refrain, complete with echoing drums, sweeping strings, and piano chords that pound on the downbeat. Campbell softly backs up Millan on the verse, but he doesn’t properly enter the song until the second verse, doubling Millan at equal volume. Hearing his voice later in the song is a good tactic; it provides the music with a nice contrast that isn’t there in the instrumentation. “Wanderers” is a thrilling, cathartic way to end the album.
Those are the highlights, and then there’s everything else on There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light. Songs like “Privilege”, “We Called It Love”, and “On the Hills” mine the quiet verse-loud chorus technique effectively, and in different ways. “Privilege” goes all out for a giant, crashing guitar and synth noise in its chorus. “We Called it Love” is a little thing with piano, synth drums, and Campbell singing at the beginning, and it opens up into a full band in the refrain, adding Millan in the second verse and layered backing vocals in the second refrain. “On the Hills” is laid-back, driven by a syncopated rhythm section in the verses and a much more straight-ahead beat during the chorus.
Other tracks take slightly different approaches. “Alone”, with its fat bass, clean electric guitar, and programmed synths, sounds like a ‘80s power ballad. With “California, I Love That Name”, it's rather like the title came first and the song was built around it. Consequently, it’s a fun, sunny track with a bright, harmonized duet in the chorus. The lyrics essentially discuss how great California is with occasional darker, oddball references like “Deep in the canyons where the vampires run free” and “California, I love you at night / When all the lonely killers have turned out the light.” “The Maze” is the one time on the album where Stars openly go dark in the music in addition to the lyrics. It opens on a much moodier, almost creepy synthpop feel, with Campbell doing his best mope-rock vocals (think Morrissey meets Robert Smith). That is a solid idea, but the song explodes into a shouty chorus at top volume with absolutely zero hooks to it. That lack of anything catchy right where the song needs it most makes “The Maze” the record’s one big miss, which is too bad since the verses are very interesting.
There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light is a strong album from a band that is clearly in their comfort zone. Hopefully, longtime fans will be satisfied with the record. If nothing else, it’s inspired me to finally dig into the band’s back catalog and see what I’ve been missing for all these years.