Review Summary: Welcome back, guys.
I keep thinking this is Stars’ fifth full-length. I guess that tells you how I felt about The Five Ghosts
.I have a feeling that the way I felt about their last record is similar to how many people felt when Goldfrapp released The Seventh Tree
right after the all-glammed-up-with-nowhere-to-go Supernature
. I loved The Seventh Tree
, and I still think it’s their second-best record, but a lot of people would disagree with me. Gone were the funky electronics, the glammed up dance beats, and the larger-than-life choruses (even I admit that “Satin Chic” is a killer song). In came the warmest sounds of their career: acoustic guitars, pianos, and a generally humbler production. Some felt it was watered down, greyed out, that their fun had been stripped away. Maybe those people are right, but I thought those colors suited the band just fine, as well as bringing out the earth-moving beauty of Alison Goldfrapp’s honeyed voice. But those negative opinions are the same ones I had about The Five Ghosts
. It was wet, grey, sad (and not in the good way). It sounded like the band had been deflated, especially after the grandiose twofer of Set Yourself On Fire
and In Our Bedroom After the War
. But here, on their sixth (!) full-length, The North
, they are full of life once again.
The production on this album is generally much more expansive, crisp, and bright than on its predecessor. This is a very slick album, bursting with syncopated rhythms, sleek electronics, and small touches of strings and harp. There is often a lot going on and it never sounds overstuffed. And that’s not to mention the twin vocals of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, both of whom have rarely sounded better than on this record. The lead track “Theory of Relativity” gives a good indication of what you will be hearing for the next forty minutes. A nice beat, fun synths, a very catchy melody, and a dose of cheese. Stars have made some pretty cheesy music (“Don’t Be Afraid to Sing” comes to mind) but they usually make it work. Not so on this album’s unfortunate “Do You Want To Die Together"” which lays its god-awful call and response (“I may look alive but inside I’m dead / Well let’s make it true”) over a tried-and-true guitar figure. Good thing it’s wedged between two of the album’s best songs, the pretty Amy-sung numbers “Through the Mines” and “Lights Changing Colour”.
In fact, I would argue this is Amy Millan’s album. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t country-folk-pop Honey From The Tombs
stuff, but it is the Stars album where I think Amy truly comes away the clear winner (vs. Torquil Campbell). Her songs have often tended to be my favorites (“Wasted Daylight” and “Changes” were the only two songs I ever go back to from The Five Ghosts
) and here is no different. The aforementioned pair, especially “Lights Changing Colour”, are beautiful. It features what is potentially her best vocal ever, at least since “Personal.” Which isn’t to say Torquil doesn’t get his moments to shine. The title track is his best performance to date; gentler and warmer than he’s ever been. And his conviction on the more overdramatic songs like “A Song is a Weapon” is admirable. "Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It,” despite its heady title, features Torquil on verse (“Take the weakest thing in you / And we’ll beat the bastards with it” is one of his more quotable tidbits) and Amy on a chorus that is the most irresistible chorus they’ve ever written, and is a showcase for the entire band: a steady groove of pristine guitar and drums.
The album winds down with its best song and its worst song. The former is “The 400," a remarkably stunning piano ballad, featuring Torquil’s most sincere-sounding plea: “It has to go right this time.” The honesty bursting from within that line, accompanied by Amy’s harmony, is heartbreaking. It has little bursts of electric guitar and harp that really add a chilling, ominous atmosphere. It’s such a shame the band chose to end the whole thing with the album’s worst song, “Walls.” Another failed attempt at call-and-response, which is doubly disappointing because that trick has worked wonders before (“The Big Fight" being my favorite example). The dense electronic pulse in the chorus isn’t quite enough to save the lackluster closer. Despite ending sourly, The North
is a welcome return to form. Stars have long been titans of indie-rock, releasing several great albums, now including this one. If this album is any indication, The Five Ghosts
was simply an unfortunate misstep, but perhaps a necessary excursion. They got the sullen, quiet album out of their systems, and returned with full force. Now let’s dance.
Best Tracks: Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It, Lights Changing Colour, The 400
Final Rating: 4.4