Every review written about Starsailor’s All This Life begins in mostly the same way: “Milquetoast UK band who wanted to be Coldplay and had only a couple hits in the early 2000s returns after separating for a little while. Oh, wait. You didn’t even know they broke up? Ha! Well, they did. And now that they’re back… bah who cares. It’s just coffee shop shlock anyway. Didn’t much care then. Don’t much care now.”
Or something like that.
Either way, it’s unfair. Starsailor were always better than people (most notably critics) gave them credit for and if they didn’t come across the blatant misfortune of writing music around the time that a band like Coldplay ruled the world, perhaps they wouldn’t be considered with such a cynical eye. “Good Souls”, the group’s most popular stateside hit, was a dark, droning, sad shot of pop that forced viewers of 120 Minutes to perk up each time the video for it appeared on a television screen. “Silence Is Easy” is a bona fide 2003 Britpop classic that nobody cared about. Hell. Even the forgotten single “In the Crossfire” from 2005’s On the Outside was pure bliss with its biting chorus and dramatic use of falsetto.
As for what they’ve been doing since 2009’s All the Plans… well, the answer is not much. Seemingly destined to be the footnote of a joke all early Aughts music snobs were going to make the next time they claimed to love In Rainbows before you did, Starsailor disbanded while lead singer James Walsh set out on his own to continue a life in music. He released a couple LPs and a couple EPs and toured his ass off, going from playing to stadium festival crowds to crumbling coffee shops without ever really implying his ego was an issue. Bitch all you want about how much better of an import Muse was to the U.S., but damn it if you think Matt Bellamy would ever be caught dead singing “Starlight” to 74 half-drunk people in some Wigan pub.
So what about All This Life? Well, in short, it’s the best Starsailor album ever. Sure, they only have five from which to choose, but lest we forget that this is the same band who once toured with the Rolling Stones. Diverse, eclectic, ambitious and more focused than they’ve ever been, this is not a nostalgic cash-in; rather, this is the rebirth of a band who so obviously needed a jumpstart anyway.
Why? Because of two songs: “Take a Little Time” and “Caught in the Middle”. Without question the grooviest these lads can be, these tracks announce a different direction, a different attitude and a different inspiration. Centered around a catchy-as-hell vocal hook, the former is grown-up pop-funk, complete with a secondary acoustic guitar part that fills out the verses in a next-level way. Plus, Walsh’s secret weapon has always been his cutting falsetto and when you combine that with such a soulful backdrop, you have new wave Britpop gold.
The latter, meanwhile, is almost shocking, coming from the same band who once wrote a ballad with Phil Spector. With sweeping atmospheric touches, it flashes back to the 1980s and a band like Mike and the Mechanics (for whom, it should be noted, Walsh opened during his solo stint). Taken acoustically, it might feel like atypical Starsailor. Taken the way it’s presented, however… wow. The bass booms. The fog creates darkness while the synths create fluorescent colors. Better yet is the exclamation point tacked onto the end of the song, with an a cappella James Walsh reciting four hauntingly poignant lines all by himself. It can’t not leave an impression.
And that’s the thing. While these two tracks are clearly the standouts for their diversity and fearlessness, the predictable Starsailor moments are also better than previous predictable efforts as well. Opener “Listen to Your Heart” pounds into action with Ben Byrne’s raw, inspired drums while the song eventually opens into the uptempo college radio rock that these guys started to get into right before they decided to call it quits. More notable is the way Walsh’s voice cracks into a screaming sensation as the bridge winds down. It’s a perfect proclamation of return.
Elsewhere, “Fallout” would have fit brilliantly on On the Outside with its ominous undertone and sway. Plus, don’t sleep on the way the vocal phrasing switches up and veers, ever mildly, into hip-hop. “FIA (Fuck It All)” is also something new for the group as it focuses mainly on electronics for a backdrop. “Walk a mile in my shoes,” Walsh asserts before he concludes, somewhat euphorically, “Nothing’s impossible when you say fuck it all.” More than anything, it feels like an act of defiance from someone who is more in on the joke than you think he is.
Which, in turn, sums up All This Life better than critiques of guitar chords and lyrical acumen could. Through it all, Starsailor have never given anything near an impression of entitlement. After all, this is a group who once proclaimed, “I don’t see myself when I look in your eyes /Thank God for that.” They didn’t have to reunite only to be subject to the inevitable short shrift most tastemakers will hurl their way (if they even hurl it at all; at this point, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a release like this be met by a hearty yawn from Those Who Write About Music).
And yet, here they are. Trying. Writing. Exploring. Enduring. All This Life is the most complete Starsailor album yet. On so many levels, it feels like they’ve kicked aside their shoes and decided to simply be whatever they wanted to be, practicing what they preach when they suggest the point at which nothing’s impossible. This is far from a throwaway, far from a money grab, far from pathetic. Instead, this is merely a new chapter in a story more people should be reading.