New releases from Stars don’t prompt many expectations of sonic experimentations.
Prolific Canadian band Stars has honed their distinctive brand of indie pop across eight albums in a career that spans nearly two decades, and their latest effort, There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light, whose title rivals In Our Bedroom After the War in its gloom and length, remains beautifully harmonious and skillful. While it’s a breezy 50-minute offering, the latest album shows that Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan haven’t lost their vocal touch and that Christopher Seligman is still able to craft earworm guitar riffs. The music, as usual, focuses on love and its many thorny stretches, but the overall message counters any thwarted sadness with palpable resilience. This album finds Stars mining their many musical modes, effectively giving us a varied range of pop styles while remaining true to the established Stars sound.
Tonally, the album is reserved, somber even in its more joyous moments, a feature that’s matched in the lovelorn lyrics. Opening with “Privilege,” Millan ushers us into the album with a dream-pop ode to regrets, airily bemoaning, “Never got want you want, never got what you want, never got it.” At first, it seems rather dour, but that ignores the determined lines that precede the first chorus: “A dreamer never dies, don’t stop believing/ Cut a heart in half can’t stop the beating.” Although Millan’s vocals are high and clear, where Campbell begins with a crisp indie riff, he quickly counters the sweetly nostalgic sound with a chunky bridge, made even more disruptive by a spacey synth. That synth takes on a brighter tone for the pop-driven track, “Fluorescent Light,” led by Campbell’s begging vocal, “Come out with me tonight/ No one falls in love under fluorescent light.” Synth twinkles the entire track, and the beat rises for the chorus, timed perfectly with every exclamation of “out.”
There are times on Fluorescent Light when Stars begins to sound like some of their contemporaries, perhaps because this is the first album on which they’ve brought in an outside producer in Peter Katis (The National). The result is a glossier, lusher yet darker Stars. Take for instance “The Maze,” which sees Stars sound like fellow Canadian rockers Arcade Fire, with Campbell sporting a low growl and bassist Evan Cranley creating a gritty sprawl. “Real Thing” and “Losing to You” sound like slinky Metric tracks. On the latter, Millan’s downbeat croon pairs with Cranley’s vibrating hum of a bass line, a mellow, gated dance beat and a blippy synth. The track itself is full of impending dread, as though fearing a loss that seems too close for comfort: “Is it strong enough a bond to carry on/ Or is there something else that’s really true?” followed by the heartbreaking chorus “Why do I feel like I’m losing you?”
The best, most surprising moments on the album come when Stars just relishes the music. The extended instrumental section that closes “Losing to You” is mellow but full of intriguing layers. Cranley’s bass remains the driving force, but a saxophone mirrors Millan’s croon with a sorrowful interjection and is made all the more melancholy by an aching violin. Similarly, Seligman lets his guitar plucking slow down and linger over the end of the otherwise upbeat, country-pop track “Alone” until the track fades out. The effect doesn’t necessarily undercut the feeling of the track but builds upon those emotions.
Like those from fellow longstanding Canadian outfits Broken Social Scene or Metric, new releases from Stars don’t prompt many expectations of sonic experimentations but rather more of the same tight indie pop. And while Fluorescent Light delivers a patently Stars sound, it by no means is dull or repetitive. Although the album may not see the band explore many different avenues, it’s definitely not guilty of lacking range; the album offers moments of euphoric bliss, brooding melancholy and trademark Stars takes on love that are at once dramatic and true to the overwhelming feeling. So even if it’s not a “new side” of Stars, it culls the best of their styles to create lush, complex indie pop.