Stars in their Eyes
Canadian indie band searches for flowers amid the rubble on war-haunted new album
Oh my god, the war is over! Why didn’t anybody tell me? Oh, wait—it’s not. In fact, war permeates the new album by Canadian indie-poppers Stars, but it’s more atmosphere than subject matter. The title’s “after” doesn’t mean Stars are imagining the literal end of war. It means they’ve retreated to a mental space where it can’t reach them. This is a precarious mental balancing act, and these songs have the character of isolation chambers with explosions wracking their perimeters. “Forget your name / Forget your fear,” Amy Millan encourages us on “The Night Starts Here.” On “Midnight Coward,” as bombs fall on Iraq, Palestine, Israel and elsewhere, Stars are “drunk and walking with the sun.” And on the title track, war is recast as a direct metaphor for interpersonal relationships—a move that might seem either ballsy or incredibly self-absorbed at a time when real war, with its visceral human toll, weighs so heavily upon the world.
As such, In Our Bedroom After the War is the musical equivalent of a big-budget Bay/Bruckheimer film like Pearl Harbor, where an event of huge historical magnitude is reduced to a painted backdrop for an archetypal love story. The album is simultaneously infuriating—because it’s so cloistered from the harsh realities that frame it—and veritable, because this is exactly the way many of us privileged Westerners live. Directly unaffected by war but plagued by guilt about it, it hovers over us like a black cloud. We breathe it like air, unseen but omnipresent.
There’s a thin line between maintaining hope and wearing the blinders that militaristic governments want us to wear, and there are times on this album when Stars wear those blinders in a way that seems naive: On “Today Will Be Better, I Swear!” Torquil Campbell sings, “Everybody only wants to ﬁght / And you’re up against never being right / When the worries of the world hold your feet / And there’s little left to believe in / Today is going to be a better one." Really? This might be true for us, but it’s di≈cult to imagine the same sentiment emanating from war-torn countries. Of course, charming naiveté has always been Stars’ ace in the hole, but this ﬁts songs addressing emotional life in wartime rather uneasily. Again, the album resembles a Hollywood epic, where redemption always trumps realism.
This cinematic quality is bolstered by a handful of songs invoking narrative conventions rather than elliptical love poems. The mincing “Life 2: The Unhappy Ending” (not a high point) is a ﬁlm-noir murder fantasia, replete with script notes like “scene one,” “cut two,” and “outside.” “Barricade”—a hammy piano ballad that represents After the War’s absolute nadir—frames a failed affair as the result of warring ideologies.
The album’s filmic approach proves more fruitful on inspired conversation song “Personal.” On this ominously twinkling creeper, Millan and Campbell assume the roles of lonely singles exchanging personal ads: "Wanted single F, under 33 / Must enjoy the sun / Must enjoy the sea / Sought by single M / Mrs. Destiny / Send photo to address / Is it you and me?” “Personal,” with its whisper-close intimacy and extravagant mawkishness, is the sort of song it’s hard to imagine a band other than Stars pulling off. On their unequivocally terrific albums Heart and Set Yourself on Fire, they maintained a pitch-perfect balance between sentimentality and style. The heart-on-sleeve lyrics were offset by dramatic deliveries alternately coy and arch, and by M83-sized walls of synthesizer. This imbued the songs with a staged remoteness that made the most syrupy sentiments slide down smoothly.
Here, Stars have stopped flirting and are going for the hard press. Scaling back the gigantic synths makes them sound more like a typical, earnest indie band than unique dramatic raconteurs. But beyond a couple of missteps, like “Barricade” and the silly falsetto-funk of “Ghost of Genova Heights,” this new direction—comprised of more-restrained synths, romantic string ﬂourishes, and scattered pianos—has mainly produced charming, infectious songs. “The Night Starts Here” is a sleek, night-riding pleasure. “Take Me to the Riot” is a triumphant indie-pop anthem. The breezy strains of “My Favourite Book” find Amy Millan in her best lovelorn form, and she winningly evokes Kate Bush on the weightlessly cascading “Window Bird.” “Midnight Coward” and “Bitches in Tokyo” are wonderfully punchy.
In Our Bedroom After the War isn’t Stars’ best effort, but it ultimately satisfies: in wartime, one takes solace wherever one can.