Stars – In Our Bedroom After The War

Stars
In Our Bedroom After The War

Canadian quintet Stars boast three members who are also in the band Broken Social Scene (vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan and bassist Evan Cranley) and they fit snugly amid those many-member collectives like Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, Margot And The Nuclear So & So’s, The Dears, and Belle And Sebastian. The band has created a cohesive album of earnest and heartfelt story-telling songs and it comes across as more than a sum of its parts due to the prevailing themes of personal relationships and lost youth, and while each song can be taken on its own, there is more power to be found in the complete body of work.

The “war” of the album title refers not to far-off lands and religious, ethnic, or political turmoil, but focuses on the inner struggle of the heart and mind, the intimate battles waged in romantic relationships, and the fight to hold on to youthful beliefs and ideals. On the song “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending” Torquil sighs with regret that “Life was supposed to be a film, supposed to be a thriller…”, but surprise, surprise, the onset of adulthood has dulled that keen edge of youthful spirit and pursuit, fading into memory that (melo)dramatic time when everything mattered and was pushed to the limit -when all was life or death.

Now, instead of burning out, there is the slow fade into obsolescence. Torquil, in story-teller mode (and to a lesser extent, Amy in the same capacity), bemoans the loss of youth and reflects upon the passage of time, and it is enough, by album’s end, to just “survive” after the “war”, as the promise and excitement of endless possibilities of the future become more difficult or impossible to achieve. Vital youthful dreams have turned into everyday adult realities.

At slightly over two minutes, “The Beginning After the End” draws back the curtain, an introduction to the main event, with a steadily clicking trip-hop beat, like “Teardrop” by Massive Attack, with pensive electronic notes and bright, drawn-out woodwinds, and Amy’s vocals briefly take shape among the instruments. Then an old recording takes over, with a woman speaking “Oh, the blood and the treasure, and the losing it all; the time that we wasted, and the place where we fall. Will we wake in the morning and know what it was for, up in our bedroom, after the war?”, which leads directly into the attenuated, dawning synths of “The Night Starts Here”, with Amy’s voice clear and upfront and Torquil sounding light and a bit echoed against bright guitar strokes.

A propulsive beat and low sonic rumble pick up the pace, as both Amy and Torquil sing “The night starts here, forget your name, forget your fear.” Aggressive, growling synths and bubbly and shooting-laser electronic notes flit about, driving the song along, and eventually Amy and Torquil’s sing-talking phrases softly collide and merge, with Torquil’s plaintive words “the upwards fall…and were we angels after all?” coming to the fore.

The exuberance and freedom of youth is on display in all its glory on the stirring chorus sections of “Take Me to the Riot”, with Torquil channeling Morrissey, exclaiming “Saturday nights and neon light…pills enough to make me feel ill, cash enough to make me feel well…” amid fast bursts of drums, expansive guitars, organ notes, and cymbal bash. The verses are more placid, with strummed guitar and Torquil sounding like a hushed Bernard Sumner of New Order, with Amy shading his vocals. By the end of the song, Torquil, all heartfelt and soaring, belts out “Take me to the riot – and let me stay!”

“My Favourite Book” is calmer in tone, with a 1960’s lounge-pop vibe (or a 1990’s Saint Etienne song style), complete with muted horns, slower, laid-back beat, and watery synth notes. Amy’s vocals are light, girlish, and sing-talking, a contrast to the deepening of violin and cello, cymbal shimmer, and flute accents.

A hint of Arcade Fire’s up-tempo, cantor-paced beat can be found on “Midnight Coward”, but the results are more subdued here, with twinned, sing-talking vocals by Torquil and Amy, bass line, piano and guitar notes, perky electro-blips, and mandolin strum. By mid-song the tone becomes more quiet and contemplative, with Torquil and Amy hesitantly trading lyrics (Torquil asking “When did I grow up?” and Amy saying “I don’t want to say too much.”), and then it’s off to the races again, with fast cymbal tap and beat, angelic horns, piano notes, and cymbal shimmer.

Short-phrase rhyming verses that recall the second song, “The Night Starts Here”, haunts the story-telling “The Ghost of Genova Heights”, with Amy whispering her background vocals against Torquil’s plain, but light delivery, and just when all seems tranquil in Genova Heights, Torquil takes it to the dance floor with a disco-inspired chorus where he pipes up in a high falsetto, channeling the Bee Gees as he sings “…now you’re back in the neighborhood. I always see you and I never should.”, which comes as quite a shock, and doesn’t particularly fit with the verse sections, but is actually pretty neat-o in itself.

“Personal” is the highlight of the album, an emotionally intimate and quietly devastating number about a guy and a girl mis(communicating) via the personals, with the guy placing an ad, sing-talking in a clipped, muted tone “…wanted: must enjoy the sun, must enjoy the sea…” A girl replies to his ad and her worry of being rejected and hurt is conveyed by her guarded, hushed sing-talking tone “…28 and bored, grieving over loss, sorry to be heavy, but heavy is the cost.”

The story unfolds slowly amid poignant piano and low-key upright bass notes. The girl opens up more, soft and hopeful, sending the guy her photo, with plans to meet each other, but the encounter doesn’t transpire. The girl, however, thinks that she saw the guy, and with her hopes dashed, she sighs, “It wasn’t meant to be… I was *sure* you saw me…” The song ends with the guy placing another personal ad, repeating his opening lines of “…must enjoy the sun, must enjoy the sea…”, but adding “…nothing too heavy…”…

Another ode to the loss of the all-consuming conviction, passion, and violence of youth and love (see “Take Me To The Riot” for a less ponderous take on the subject) can be heard on the narrative-driven, piano and accordion note-spattered “Barricade”, with a reflective Torquil thinly, but expressively warbling about protesters verses the police, about making a stand, about “How could anyone not want, to rip it all apart?” and “How could anyone not love your cold black heart?” At one point in the song the multitude of protesters’ voices rises up, and Torquil reaches out, emoting “I’ll be at the barricade…meet me at the barricade. The love died, but the hate can’t fade…”

“Window Bird” plays with the “slow verse and fast chorus” dynamic, shifting it a bit, with a mid-tempo New Order-like synth and piano notes, guitar strum, and beat, and Amy singing in an airy, sweet voice on the verses, and on the chorus, Amy, sounding kittenish, and Torquil, shadowing her, sing hazily against a slower beat, revealing a heretofore hidden My Bloody Valentine aspect (although not as distorted or layered in sound). The verse sections then speed up with a low register bass line, synth notes, and guitar strum, culminating by the end of the tune with piano, bashed cymbals, and a winding rock guitar line.

The next number, “Bitches In Tokyo”, is lyrics-heavy (take, for example, “Temporary battles can take up half your life, how you dig your bed will help you sleep at night.”), with a fast drum intro leading to mid-paced verses with Amy sing-talking lightly, and louder, faster chorus parts, with Amy more expressive among the cymbal shimmer, struck piano and organ notes, drum pummeling, and electro-sweeps and fades.

The standout track “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending” is a melodramatic, unspooling narrative in the vein of Morrissey or Jarvis Cocker (when they play it straight, without any smirking or winking), with Torquil sounding very much like Morrissey, but lighter and more earnest, singing in a breathy, but regretful tone about how his life hasn’t gone as he had planned, because “Life was supposed to be a film, was supposed to be a thriller…was supposed to end in tears.” (or fire or blood), and not continue on to the soft, mellow core of middle-age. In the ultimate salute to dissatisfied youth and the demise of adolescent dreams, he asks “Where’s my unhappy ending gone?”

Middle-age concerns encroach upon “Today Will Be Better, I Swear!”, as Amy sing-talks about the cold morning light, how everyone wants to fight, how she’s never right, and that “The only problem with going to bed, is that you wake up in the morning.” The chorus breaks out in a burst of low-register, grimy and watery synth lines, piano notes, cymbal bashes, and beat as Amy sings “Today is gonna be a better one.” Half-way through the song, her vocals disappear, and the rest of the time is taken up by varied and unnecessary instrumentation, from piano, strings, drum beat, and swooping, spacey, “distorted owls” sounds.

Like survivors rising from the rubble in the wake of battle, “In Our Bedroom After the War” starts off slowly, with steady piano notes and Torquil sounding like The Divine Comedy or Jarvis Cocker, light and a bit hushed, sing-talking that “…at least the war is over.” His vocals get stronger over the course of the song, full of aching relief, as varied strings and cymbal and beat are introduced, and he’s hopeful on the refrain “Listen to the birds sing, listen to the bells ring, Oh, the living are dead, and the dead are all living – the war is over – and we are beginning.” Once again, the theme relationships is at the forefront (the struggles, the death of, the renewal of), as the instruments take over in triumph, the strings, guitar, horns, and cymbal crashes lifting the song up as Torquil sings “The first day, it starts up in our bedroom, after the war.”