It’s hard to make the claim that Stars
has rediscovered their mojo after a couple of albums that were fairly divisive (2007‘s In Our Bedroom After The Way
and 2010’s The Five Ghosts
), because quite frankly they never really lost it. For fans frustrated with the last few years, there were always glimpses and echoes of the band they fell in love with with Heart
and Set Yourself On Fire
-- songs like “Fixed” complemented the resplendency of “Ageless Beauty,” “Dead Hearts” matching their flair for story-telling and “Take Me To The Riot” making the most compelling case for catharsis seen yet on a Stars album. But, with The North
, the Canadian band has come back into its own, with a return to form... even if they never veered that far away.
Opening with the fuzzy synths of “The Theory of Relativity,” Stars delivers one of their most upbeat and dance-centric track, with Torquil Campbell tackling vocals on the verses. It seems to be going in one direction until it hits the chorus, when Amy Millan enters and the keyboards shimmer, percussion thrust forward and the song just plain shimmers. Millan sings “What would you say? If I fell apart, would you bring me back?,” voicing one of the lyrical motifs that connects Stars’ catalogue-- the fear and anxiety of unrequited love. That’s one of the great things about this band, because they’re able to express deep emotions on top of a musical background that gets the body moving.
“Backlines” follows, and it’s one of the most conventional songs on the record, which does not belie the strength of the piece, however. Here, Millan takes main vocal duty, and it’s a downright gorgeous two-minute vignette, complete with mini-orchestral breakdown near the end. Next is the title track, which offers the first mid-tempo moment on the album, but there’s a rhythmic through-line that propels it.
The record then picks back up for “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It,” arguably the center-piece and best song of The North
, and definitely one of the band’s finest ever. It’s the type of passion pop that Stars does so well-- joining sentiment with an indie rock sensibility and strong grasp of melody that just attaches to your heart. Also, the song features one of their finest choruses ever, in which Campbell’s earnest verse vocals yields to Millan’s haunting intonement: “What do I do when I get lonely? What do I do?” It’s a simple enough lyric, but it’s the delivery that reveals the blossoming splendor of the track.
They then judiciously change course with “Through the Mines,” which is an acoustic-guitar forward piece that isn’t quite a ballad but also not enough of a rocker to be considered either. It’s straight-forward folk pop that’s anchored by Millan’s gorgeously fragile soprano. Sadly, the next track, “Do You Want To Die Together?” breaks the incredible flow of the first five songs from The North
. It’s the type of self-indulgent overblown writing that marred a lot of In Our Bedroom After The Way
, and unfortunately there’s just not much to recover the song from this type of excess.
Side B of the album is definitely not as strong as the first half, but it’s certainly in no way filler. “Light Changing Colour” is a lilting ballad that provides a nice calm to the mid-section of The North
, and “A Song Is A Weapon” recalls the exciting experimentation of Set Yourself On Fire
But it’s the ending couplet that really shines through, and definitely is a brilliant ending to an already fantastic album. “The 400” is Torquil Campbell at his best-- an un-adorned ballad focused on the lyrics and the snow globe of a story that he so delights in constructing for the listener. The chorus of “It’s got to go right this time / it has to go right this time / it’s go to go right” is a pleading chant, that is laid on top of a buzzing electric guitar that sounds unlike anything you’d expect from this band in 2012. And then the closing track “Walls” is a gorgeous duet between Campbell and Millan that is, again, a bit of a return to form, with drum machines overlaid with throbbing bass and various percussive sounds and ambiance. Their voices weave in and out of each other’s melody, creating a type of harmony that is neither traditional nor trivial. It divulges the intense heartfelt-ness of this band, that is the cornerstone of exactly what Stars as a group is-- sometimes excessive, but never without sincerity, profundity and the type of passionate enthusiasm that few bands possess.