It is mystifying to think that the immediate association one conjures up when confronted with the idea of pop music is the illiterate, cheeseball humdrum manufactured to satiate our most drab of senses. Yet underneath the rather thin bubblegum layer of the pop vernacular lies a truly rich history that sees its roots reach back to music’s earliest forms. And whether it is in the shape of rock, country, blues, soul, dance- or to some of the more traditional sounds of gospel or even the stage- pop music’s legacy is one that is intertwined with every aspect of our own. From Elvis recording his first single to when a seemingly outcast kid from Washington State wrote an anthem inspired by a deodorant stick, there has been no greater source for bringing together entire communities than popular music.
One of pop’s most endearing subjects has of course been love- the coming together of a more personal kind. Whether it is for the heart of another, for music itself, or some twisted, tangled tale of romance, love has been one of popular music’s thematic centerpieces touched upon time and time again by some of the most enduring artists in our musical history. For Montreal-based pop collective Stars, it has been no different. Their fantastic 2003 effort Heart began with each member’s declaration of it, and since their 2001 debut Nightsongs, they have never strayed too far from the comforts (and discomforts) of the subject. It has a lot to do with the sophisticated nature of their music- the softly hued strings, the chamber-like electronics, the charming dual vocals, all rolled together in lush orchestration- that undoubtedly becomes synonymous with our most ambitious imaginings of affection. And anyone who has heard “Elevator Love Letter” is sure to understand how effective they are at bringing across these emotions in a perfect three to four minute slice.
A little more than a year removed from Heart, Stars return with their latest offering, Set Yourself On Fire, and immediately set the tone with the single “Ageless Beauty.” Much like “Elevator Love Letter,” the track is buoyed by great pop sensibilities, addictive hooks, and Amy Millan’s sweetly tinged tone. Like it’s previous, it is the album’s finest offering, and further extends Stars’ rather immaculate track record at writing the picture-perfect pop song. However, while Heart is filled with an endless array of wonderful outings, Set Yourself On Fire is a rather more subdued effort. And while still filled with moments of brilliance, it is a little lacking in the charm and exuberance seen in the former. This isn’t to say the album isn’t without its gems; other than its preceding single we get the delicate touch of the closer “The Calender Girl,” a sad tale from the depths of loneliness buoyed by lyrical histrionics (“I dreamed I was dying as I so often do / and when I awoke I was sure it was true / I went to the window threw my head to the sky / said whoever is up there please don’t let me die”) and a remarkably beautiful instrumental palette.
These are the moments where they outshine their more recent counterparts. There seems to be an underlying sense of convention (mostly topical), yet they successfully meld them with some of music’s best forms of advancement. In “One More Night,” the grand beginnings of high-arching strings are a mere prelude to the delicate indie-pop leanings employed throughout the song. The balance found between Stars’ obvious tendency towards the modern aesthetic and their (the pun is very much unavoidable) love for popular music with soul is seamless. “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” and “The Big Fight,” are great examples of this infusion of Marvin Gaye / Al Green sparked urban soul, and a big reason why they are so much more than the standard.
So how much better is Heart than Set Yourself On Fire? It’s enough to separate the two. The latter is by no means a poor effort, it is just without the additionally wonderful sparkles- tracks like “Life Effect,” and “Look Up” that made Heart just as enchanting to listen to during an afternoon stroll through a leaf-littered park as it is underneath an exquisite moon lit evening. Yet on a greater scale, it is not what is most important; what is perhaps most striking is the idea that the musicians involved here may possess that irresistible charm akin to some of music’s greatest affairs- an ageless beauty that sees Stars spearhead their self-professed “soft revolution.” Their latest then is like the sequel to that one incredible moment; more than capable of capturing the genuine quintessence of togetherness but never quite exploring the nervous passion and enthusiasm of that one timeless romance.