Like an emotional compass, for the past decade Stars have resolutely pointed to the seductive, never-ending drama of shattered or unbalanced relationships. The taut vocal and lyrical interplay between Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan might sound pretty, but their conversation skirts any notion of dewy romanticism. There are always thorns, razor-sharp ones, nestled in the Montréal quintet’s bouquets of rosy, lushly constructed pop.
But aside from Campbell’s occasional, gleeful bent to lyrical theatrics – casually flinging a brutal observation to the frontlines like a grenade — Stars’ songwriting is never spiteful, despite constant ruminations on the fragility of love. Few bands can as sweetly land a song with a cutting title like ‘Your Ex-Lover Is Dead’ — aimed squarely between the eyes of humor and heartbreak — and then devastate effortlessly, as Stars do, with the aching ‘Calendar Girl’.
While the band’s sixth album might not have the decisive knockout punch of those two tracks from 2004’s Set Yourself on Fire, it’s the band’s most confident album to date – an airy, assured balance of Campbell’s wry flourishes and Millan’s trilled, cool girl glissades. Rather than wade too deeply into the treacherous swamp of socio-political discontent, as the band did to wispier, albeit well-intentioned, effect on In Our Bedroom After The War, The North mostly steers away from protest (although Campbell does his best with ‘A Song Is A Weapon’). Instead, they focus on the bruised heart and the brevity of youth. In fact, the discourse between Campbell, Millan, drummer Patrick McGee, keyboardist Chris Seligman and bassist Evan Cranley — the latter two write the bulk of Stars’ music — seems as much about breaking down the group’s own complicated relationship (Cranley and Millan are even a couple), guided by a wary acknowledgment of the temporal limitations of life in general.
Preluded by the warning bells of a railroad crossing and the voice of Glenn Gould, lifted from a 1967 documentary The Idea of North, the record leaves the station with dynamic, New Order-reverent propulsion on ‘The Theory of Relativity’, a half-sentimental look back to adolescence splashed with an encroaching dread of the future. New Order has long been a part of Stars’ fabric and Manchester band’s influence appears most spectacularly on the terrific (although awkwardly titled) ‘Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It’. Campbell— joined by Millan on the explosively chiming bridge — dishes out tough love (“take the weakest thing in you and beat the bastards with it”), spurred on by Cranley’s swollen, Hooky-like bassline, spidery synths and McGee’s thunderously galloping drumbeat.
On the gorgeous, shape-shifting ‘Through the Mines’, Millan’s voice flies skyward — almost dangerously too high — above the dense, thick hedgerow of guitar, drums and keys, like a hummingbird uncertain where to set alight. There’s a deliciously twisted nod to 50s teen tragedy ballads with the poodle-skirted sway and feedback swoon of ‘Do You Want To Die Together’ while the delicate title track, tenderly sung by Campbell, shivers in the snow, frozen by climate and indecision.
Although Stars never quite seemed in danger of dissolving — despite lackluster reviews for 2010’s The Five Ghosts — with The North, the band seems rejuvenated, inspired and back on course. Sweetness has never suited Stars, thankfully, but they’ve always managed to find great beauty in the beastly turpitude of broken love.