In Our Bedroom After the War
(Arts and Crafts; 2007)
By David M. Goldstein | 30 September 2007
Hopeless romantics, incredibly twee, the thinking man’s Human League, and in the case of front person Torquil Campbell, “David Sedaris on crack” (credit to CMG staffer Conrad Amenta on that one); Montreal-based pop tarts Stars have been called permutations of all these things in their seven-year, four-album career. You can also add “self-aware” to that list: realizing that 2004 career peak Set Yourself On Fire would be impossible to successfully follow up, they milked it within an inch of its life via incessant touring (seriously, they hit NYC at least nine times in the past two years) and an ill-advised remix album released after its parent record had already been on the shelves for over two years. It’s kind of hard to blame them, only because Fire really is a bit of a modern day classic, pristinely matching a bottomless bag of pop hooks to sugar rush guitars and deft electronics. Think Rumours (1977) re-envisioned by Junior Boys if Lindsay Buckingham was really fey.
Stars were going to have to release a new album at some point, and, for its first half anyway, In Our Bedroom After the War almost lives up to the challenge Set Yourself On Fire set simply by existing. There’s very little here that they haven’t already done better on their previous albums, but it’s clearly evident that they’re at their best when they keep things lively and allow co-front persons Torquil Campbell and Amy Milan to both sing on the same song. First single “Take Me to the Riot” is essentially “Ageless Beauty” Redux, but when you’re that good at crafting a hyper-saturated, U2-style rock song with a huge chorus, formula need not be a bad thing. “Midnight Coward” and “The Night Starts Here” also benefit from the twin-lead vocalist attack and several catchy moments, but the best bits of Bedroom‘s first half comprise the two songs that sound the most like adult-MOR. “The Ghost of Genova Heights” is pure Hall and Oates pastiche, with Campbell doing his finest Daryl Hall falsetto over a coke-mirror groove, and the slinky “My Favorite Book” is probably Amy Milan’s foxiest moment and the album’s best track—one of those ‘you’re my man, and loving you is awesome’ type songs that Christine McVie would likely appreciate (and Jenny Lewis would kill to write).
But Bedroom was unquestionably designed to be a Side A/Side B affair, and after the somber, yet compelling, duet of “Personal,” things all too quickly go off the rails and murder some innocent countryside. The times being what they are, you probably aren’t going to name your record In Our Bedroom After the War without some sort of political overtones, and Stars approach this by adding substantial doses of theatricality to the album’s latter half that too often cross the fine line between being affecting and being unbelievably cheesy. Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the two songs featuring little more than Torquil Campbell’s voice and a lone piano (“Barricade” and the first half of the title track). You can’t help but a feel a little embarrassed for the guy, as he’s saddled with ridiculous Les Miserables-lite lyrics (“Meet me at the barricade / The love died / But the hate can’t fade!” or “All the living are dead / And the dead are all living / The war is over / And we are beginning!”) that only serve to expose the thinness of his vocals when Milan doesn’t have his back. Then on “Today Will Be Better, I Swear!” and “Window Bird,” the band simply forgets to write anything resembling a decent hook, and Milan’s repetitive incantation of “today, today, is gonna be a better one.” over mushy keyboards on the former doesn’t cut it.
Stars records have suffered from being frontloaded in the past; as much as I enjoyed Fire I’m not going to lie and say I spun “Soft Revolution” and “Celebration Guns” nearly as much as “Reunion” and “Your Ex-Lover is Dead.” But In Our Bedroom After the War doesn’t so much slow down towards its conclusion as limp. Perhaps the feisty “Bitches in Tokyo” excepted, you will not listen to any track after “Personal” more than twice. Guaranteed. Did it really need to be fifty-six minutes long?
Did the packaging really need to include each song’s lyrics printed on thirteen separate pieces of paper? In Our Bedroom After the War is half of an above average album, which is unfortunate if only because the band’s still clearly capable of gorgeous pop convulsions when they lay off the theatrics and let their rhythm section rev things up. So for album number five, no more “Oh, how could anyone not want to / Rip it all apart / Oh, how could anyone not love / Your cold, black heart!” Dear God, please?