In Our Bedroom After the War
Arts & Crafts
rue to form, the new Stars album contains two songs about protesters and no protest songs—Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan’s chamber-pop troubadours remain doggedly interested in people, not their ideas. (Stars’ best song is “Elevator Love Letter,” about Campbell’s Gatsbian love for rich-girl Millan; their worst is “He Lied About Death,” about Bush.) Even confined to the first subject the band’s skill varies: “Take Me to the Riot,” warm and expansive, is a fine shallow anthem, but “Barricade,” a wistful ballad about the romance of cruelty (“How could anyone not love the terrible things you do?”) isn’t Nabokov; it isn’t even Mickey Spillane.
In Our Bedroom After the War, though it contains nothing on the level of the band’s best or worst, is the handiest inventory yet of Stars’ obsessions, M.O.s, strengths and failings. A young band and pretty, concerned with surfaces which always turn out to be warped or pocked in ways many wouldn’t bother to notice; sonically generous, lyrically inclusive; a little full of themselves. The lyrics of the album’s first real song, “The Night Starts Here,” are a list of the kind of things Stars songs are about: “the time we have,” “the task at hand,” “the dusk at dawn,” “the being free,” “that big black cloud over you and me.” The litany hums along through skittering drums and distant, twinkling keyboards, and eventually Campbell and Millan sing together, and it’s a little beautiful, the way couples leaving restaurants are beautiful, or senior prom. Such carpe noctum is Stars’ strong suit; few bands are as good at making songs to score nighttime journeys of nebulous purpose. Sometimes they strain—“Life 2: The Unhappy Ending” sinks under a too-trivial circular melody and a cinematic conceit that doesn’t work—but the songs most in danger of being intolerable can become highlights—the penultimate “Today Will Be Better, I Swear!,” with a title and chorus sprung from Sufjan Stevens’ nightmares, would close the album better than the awful title track. (Hemingway condemned war for the lovers it tore apart; Stars for the damper it puts on young urbanites’ days.)
When not embracing the pretty bits of the cosmos, the band contents itself with caressing innerspace. “My Favourite Book” is the best showcase yet for Millan’s loose whisper, not as fine a song as Set Yourself On Fire‘s “Ageless Beauty” but a less enveloping one over which Millan has better control. Similarly, “The Ghost of Genova Heights” may be Torquil Campbell’s finest moment, a slice of goofy lite disco that channels the Decemberists through Ray Davies Jr. and washes the gunk from each. These two solo outings are In Our Bedroom’s contributions to the small pantheon housing “Elevator Love Letter” and “Ageless Beauty,” and though they’re lesser gods it’s the first time a Stars album has birthed more than one. Elsewhere, as usual, the band gets bogged down in the hostility of their love, and their efforts to analyze it are at once less shallow and less effective than Heart‘s snappily titled “Death to Death.” Love for Stars has always been violently exclusive, as ready to kill those who don’t matter as save those who do, and though “Barricade” addresses this paradox more directly than ever, it’s a sodden torch song, a chore; “Death to Death” sounded like mid-period Garbage, which is what all songs should sound like.
This continues to be Stars’ weak spot: their beautiful-people narratives are never quite strong enough to live unsupported by sonic candy. “The Ghost of Genova Heights” and “My Favourite Book,” a silly ghost story and straightforward love song respectively, rise to the top buoyed not by their emotions or observations but by keyboards and “doo-doo-doo”s. In Our Bedroom After The War is Stars’ most consistent, nuanced album, and says good things for the future, but Campbell and Millan won’t write a perfect record until they learn what their songs need, and abandon the inevitable few tracks on which it’s refused. Perhaps perfection is too abstract, though; perhaps Stars are too close and warm to bother. I can’t protest that.