It's February. It's grey and cold. Black snowdrifts flank the streets, and the sky is the color of brushed steel. There's no horizon I can see at all, just office buildings and derelict discount shops.
Today is Valentine's Day.
There's a package for me in the mail, a package that swiftly brings some soft pink hues into this drab metropolis, and into my lately dreary days. "I am Evan and this is my Heart. I am Amy and this is my Heart. I am Chris and this is my Heart. I am Torq and this is my Heart." Like a phone call on a lonely day, this album by Stars lifted me up from the opening words. After basic introductions, the band swiftly took me by the hand and pulled me up the street, helping me glide along as if I were on skates, taking me to an undisclosed destination.
"Elevator Love Letter" drives leisurely with its gentle wall of sound and plinky keyboards, while confessing crushes ("I'm so hard for the rich girl") and mixed expectations. The voices of singer/guitarist Amy Millan and singer Torquil Campbell mix perfectly here, and throughout the record. Both voices are wonderfully soft-spoken and understated, managing to emote all the pain and joy that comes with love. And for Stars, love is the word.
They claim to be part of a "soft revolution," one that preaches love and romance. Their message is pure and simple, but keeps in mind the complexities and struggles that come with it. They're stylish urbanites with a ridiculously appealing hippie sensibility. Their melodies are catchy and singable, backed by lush instrumentation provided by bassist Evan Cranley (Broken Social Scene) and synth-whiz Chris Seligman, as well as a cluster of guests who play cello, flute, violin, sax and even the elusive theremin.
While the orchestration and production are impeccable and finely crafted, it's not hard to pick out influences from the 1980s, ranging from brooding rock to pulsing synthetic pop. Though Stars have added a great deal of sunniness through their sound, the lyrics convey some underlying grief: "Kurt Cobain never had the chance, you know. Incurable romantics never do. He held a flame I wasn't born to carry. I'll leave the dying young stuff up to you" ("Heart"). Or: "You will look for five more days, you will trawl the city night, then you'll make yourself forget me. I'll fade into the halflight" ("The Vanishing"). Surprisingly, the lyrical clichés are kept to a minimum, something commendable in this world of "oh baby" and "if you could only know." Each song tells a different story, an incomplete love scene, its outcome left to the listener's imagination.
I went to see Stars perform the next evening, and was surprised at how edgy and absorbing their live show was. The album is so flawless that it was nice to see some sweat to remind me of the fallibility of these musicians. The show definitely cracked the glossy veneer that coats Heart's best moments. This veneer, however, may just propel their music towards a wider audience, which, judging by the crowd I saw that evening, is already uncommonly diverse.
The final track on the album, "Don't Be Afraid to Sing," is a quiet and unusual rallying cry that closes with the repeated refrain "We all come to an end, and we all end together." Yes, we are united in the timeless search for love, but we're also united in that our lives will, eventually, come to an end. While somewhat unsettling, the notion is unbelievably romantic, and an apt conclusion for such a lovelorn record.