I used to be deathly afraid of ghosts. I was living in an old apartment, one that still had the original creepy wallpaper that was pasted at the turn of the century, and I couldn’t help wondering if anyone had died in it. Those thoughts led me to wonder if I was being watched by the former resident, playing little tricks on me to force me into moving out of their space. Unlike what I usually do with most fears, namely avoid them at all costs, I explored the fear further. I immersed myself in ghost lore, becoming more and more fascinated with every story. Eventually, not only did I begin to lose my fear, I also began to somewhat lose my belief in the supernatural. The more I heard from so-called experts, the less I believed. Then, my grandparents passed. Ultimately, my definition of ghosts had to change. They were no longer the stereotypical ectoplasmic, ethereal beings that spook people. Instead, they were truly a spiritual notion, the idea that those who mean something to you will always be around.
I don’t know if the members of Stars would agree with me, but I think they might. The title was inspired by several different experiences the band members have had in being haunted by their own ghosts, physically manifested or otherwise. But, it is this collection of songs that will ultimately haunt listeners for years to come. Set Yourself on Fire is one of those albums that takes up a special place in my heart, with nearly each track being a memorable potential single. The Five Ghosts is nearly its equal, with the caveat that only time will tell how each album fully measures against the other.
“Dead Hearts,” the album’s opener, goes a long way to prove both of my previous points, being a he said / she said as powerful as “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” while presenting analogous lyrics to the parallel natures of ghosts and people from one’s past. That sensual, yet innocent dynamic between Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan has always been one of the more engaging aspects of Stars, yet Campbell made an effort with this set of songs to lay the bulk of the vocal duties on Millan. Never fear, however, as tracks like the disco-robotic “We Don’t Want Your Body” shimmers with the dual vocals, and Campbell goes solo on the deeply hypnotic “He Dreams He’s Awake.”
But Torquil’s original plan pays off in tracks “Changes,” “Wasted Daylight,” and “Fixed,” with Amy Millan’s vocals taking center stage. When Millan sings lyrics such as “I care when caring fades,” the hearts of young indie boys melt all over North America. Stars seem to be once again marrying the humanizing quality of voice and the emotional depth of literate lyrics with the cold qualities of the synth, turning the latter into something slightly more accessible. “The Passenger” is the perfect example of this, less alienating than Passion Pit, giving that kind of music what it seemed to be missing, namely heart. That seems also true of “The Last Song Ever Written,” whose high notes by Millan over droning synths made me think of a slowed down, more romantic version of the Mary Jane Girls’ “In My House.”
The songs on The Five Ghosts seem to be part of a collective meditation on what we’ve lost, and the notion that we can somehow still gain it back. This seems certainly true of Stars’ potency as songwriters, as many seemed to think they had not quite lived up to the potential of Set Yourself on Fire with In Our Bedroom After the War. We are all haunted by our own particular ghosts, whether they be the actual manifestations of lost loved ones, or simply the mistakes of our past. The question becomes whether we can make peace with those ghosts, and on this album, Stars have gone a long way to prove that one can.