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Stars - Set Yourself on Fire

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Artist: Stars

Album: Set Yourself on Fire

Label: Arts & Crafts

Review date: Mar. 14, 2005

Stars are Romantics. Unabashedly. Like a musical equivalent to the films of Richard Linklater, or the novels of someone I wouldn’t want to read. Their last record, Heart, kicked off with each member personally offering up his or her heart. Set Yourself on Fire starts in similar fashion, but it’s somebody else (one of their dads, actually), intoning: “When there is nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire.” Also fairly romantic, in the sense of passionate and idealistic (Stars are those things too). Apart from that, it’s a rather uncomfortable epigram for the album.

It does sound vaguely political, and indeed it seems Stars wanted to make a political statement of some sort, what with the title and the Doctors Without Borders’ URL printed under the tray. But the two or three even remotely political songs here are tucked away at the end, and even those aren’t exactly topical, save for a bit of adorably in-character anti-Bush vitriol on “He lied about death” (“I hope your drunken daughters are gay!”). The lyrics to the propulsive title track offer only a series of locations sketches (“on the 97th floor overlooking Tokyo / in Camden road in a second floor flat”) and the cryptic mantra “there is only one thing.” Both could just as easily be about love – and that’s more or less the crux of Stars’ political philosophy, such as it is. They herald the soft revolution. Kill the bastards with love. Ahem. If this is starting to sound nauseating, don’t worry.

At heart (if you’ll pardon me), whatever its makers’ ambitions, this is really just an album about relationships, about love happening (or not) between people. The words form little impressionistic stories about, you know, that kind of thing. A handful of them chronicle the complicatedly happy occurrence of an unexpected second chance with an ex-lover (at a high school reunion; introduced randomly by a friend of a friend, etc.) Many of the others can be construed as playing off this scenario in various ways, which suggests that there’s a loose, overarching narrative to be inferred here. (I mention Linklater above partly because this narrative has strong parallels to his Before Sunset, and the album explores many of the film’s same themes – nostalgia/memory, real vs. imagined lover – all with comparable charm.) Depending on how much liberty you’re willing to give the gaps in the story, it connects the majority of the songs, creating a nicely unifying effect for the album as a whole without the awkwardness and other pitfalls of a deliberate “concept.”

If you’re not so inclined to lyrical detective-work, there’s also plenty to enjoy musically. There was a considerable stylistic shift (and three years and two mostly-new members) separating Heart from the crispier electro-pop of their debut Nightsongs LP, but this time around the group have stuck the basic sonic template set out in their last album. There are some rougher textural edges and the playing is a bit looser – a number of the songs conclude with extended instrumental workouts – but otherwise not much has changed. Lush (which is to say sweet, but not necessarily gentle) synths and symphonics ensconce melodic guitar rock-pop songs to an effect that shouldn’t really be as unique as it sounds. That better embodies the phrase “dream pop” than pretty much anything I can think of.

Really, it’s fairly impressive that Stars could make a record that comes this close to replicating its predecessor while still offering discrete pleasures of its own. The songwriting is perhaps a bit more uneven this time, the artwork is palpably even worse – and, oh yeah, they’re wrong about “Tainted Love” being too fast to dance to – but there are about as many sublimely pretty moments, and the popslices shine at least as brightly (“What I’m Trying to Say” could be a bouncy indie dance smash).

Notwithstanding their ample aptitude for melody, texture, lyrical imagery, sloganeering, and so on, it’s hard to argue that Stars’ personality is the best thing they’ve got going for them. Quietly epic, earnest but not melodramatic, sweet but not cloying, their romanticism infuses everything they do, and it’s what makes them stand out as more than just another band laying on the layers and singing songs about love.

By K. Ross Hoffman

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