Stars vocalist Amy Millan has stated that in recording Set Yourself on Fire, the Toronto combo attempted to make a “sex” album. It’s not exactly Dirty Mind or Erotica but in some small way, I think they may have succeeded. It’s not particularly filthy or foul. There’s nothing about it in the way of odd perversions or sexual depravity. But it has a classy sexiness about it that can’t be denied. It’s more of a romantic sex than a fetishistic and primal fornication; making love, not “fucking.” It’s the sort of album you’d remember to call two days later.
That said, Set Yourself on Fire is some of the best sex your ears will ever have. Musically, the band has expanded their horizons farther than previously thought possible. No longer the “Canadian Belle and Sebastian” as they’ve been called before, Stars are a streamlined, shoegazer-leaning pop band with some of the tightest songwriting in indie pop today. A great deal of this could be attributed to the addition of new drummer Pat McGee, who beefs up the group’s sound into a stronger, more intense production. While Heart may have been blessed with a brilliant single in “Elevator Love Letter,” this outing’s “Ageless Beauty” produces the same effect, but one more viable in a live setting.
The first track on Fire, “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” begins with noble cello leads and an ethereal and heaven-sent buildup that culminates in a lush and majestic opener fit for royalty or the closing credits of a post-teenage coming-of-age drama, right after the ending redemption/start of a new journey scene. In comparison, the title track is an epic rock song that trades back and forth between shuffling intro and fast-paced shoegazer rock, with an atmospheric outro closing out the final minute and a half.
The band’s fascination with ’80s synth pop hasn’t gone away. But thanks to McGee’s powerful skin-pounding, they’ve stepped away from more obviously synthetic sounds. While “What I’m Trying To Say” borrows liberally from heroes like New Order, it’s equally Smiths-informed, as Evan Cranley plays a strongly Marr-influenced guitar riff during the chorus. “Sleep Tonight” is sweet and dreamy like Saint Etienne, but without the obvious disco-pop beats. And the noisy industrial romp of “He Lied About Death” eschews their previously fey pop sound for a more sinister, dark beast.
But let’s keep in mind, this is the same band that wrote a song called “What the Snowman Learned About Love” and also included a song called “Romantic Comedy” on the same album, which, I might add was called Heart. And the lyrical dramatics of Campbell and Millan haven’t changed a bit. Though some songs take on less tangible subjects, they’re at their most memorable when they’re playing the bitter ex-lovers (as opposed to the dead ones their song titles suggest). In one song Millan proclaims “I’m not sorry it’s over,” while in another, Campbell states, “when she’s breaking his heart/she still fucks like a tease.” If Sex and the City hadn’t been canceled (or absolute shit), this album would make a fitting soundtrack. Now it’s up to someone else to write a film based on this album.
There are probably some great tracks I forgot to mention, like the beautiful “One More Night” or the catchy “Reunion” or the upbeat “Soft Revolution.” But there’s an entire album’s worth of brilliant moments, just as any great love will supply you with years’ worth of fond memories. Set Yourself on Fire is a great sex album, but it’s no one night stand. It’s the kind that you love just hanging out with, spend most of your day dreaming about and looks great with its clothes on. I think this is the one.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.