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splendid > reviews > 3/15/2005
Stars
Stars
Set Yourself On Fire
Arts & Crafts


Format Reviewed: CD

Soundclip: "Ageless Beauty"

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It's an ominous title, isn't it? The album-opening quote provides a little clarification: "When there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire." What does that say to you? Last-ditch effort? Final, hopeless gamble? Noble self-sacrifice? Perhaps. You don't set yourself on fire until you've exhausted every other option; it's a final, desperate bid for attention -- for a cause, a plight, a belief system, whatever. Regardless of the circumstances, it's not the course of action you'd immediately associate with Stars' clever, airy pop songs.

More to the point, Stars no longer need to set themselves on fire. The world took notice of 2003's superlative Heart, and the biggest challenge these Canadian popsters faced was determining how to duplicate its success without xeroxing the formula. In that respect, they've succeed admirably: while clearly the work of the same band that recorded "Elevator Love Letter" and "Death to Death", Set Yourself On Fire never goes for sappy sentiment. Vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan connect with their audience with the breathy ease of scenester storytellers, sketching out their tales in economical but well-chosen strokes, and the tunes behind them, invariably elegant, are often deceptively cheeerful. Set Yourself On Fire deals with the fires that can ignite within us, often without warning -- love, hatred, desire, anger, fear, fervor, pain. Life, they remind us, is like a bundle of kindling, and passion is an accelerant. Sometimes the fire flares up for an instant, then dies; sometimes it smolders for days, weeks, even years.

Predictably, relationships are the basis for much of Set Yourself On Fire's lyrical drama. Some of those relationships are new, fresh and full of promise. "Reunion" burns with the preemptive promise of a high school affair rekindled after many years, its participants perhaps better suited for each other now than they were the first time around. "All I want is one more chance / to be young and wild and free," Campbell sings. "All I want is once more chance to show you / you were right for me." "The First Five Times" visits an even more youthful passion, conjuring the intoxicating sexual urgency -- that drive to do it anywhere, at any time -- that makes the early days of a new relationship so unforgettable. It's a light-hearted tune -- jangly acoustic guitars, light-hearted synth, drum-machine beats -- but a close read of the lyrics suggests that it's not all innocence and sweetness: "Third time in a doorway / with the lights all on around us / and the audience beside us / and your man watching from the trees." The chorus is heavier, choked with buzzing bass drone, and we're reminded, "Every day / I've changed since then."

Urgent couplings are a recurring theme: "One More Night (Your Ex-Lover Remains Dead)" is closure disguised as animalistic passion, while "Sleep Tonight" spins an entire world out of the space occupied by two lovers. "The Big Fight" takes affection out of the equation, freeze-framing a collapsing relationship between the languid, jazzy pulses of Evan Cranley's bass. The angry, glitchy "He Lied About Death" skews in a more political direction, albeit without naming names; no prizes for guessing who's being addressed when Millan and Campbell sing "I hope your drunken daughters are gay!"

In a few cases, sheer musical delight triumphs over content. Opener "Your Ex-Lover is Dead", about a chance meeting with a former flame, crackles with the same autumnal warmth that made Heart so irresistible -- bass, keyboards, strings, horn and plaintive vocals team up for a killer hook. When Millan sings "the scar is a fleck on my porcelain skin / you tried to reach deep but you never got in," expect to be hopelessly ensnared. "Ageless Beauty", Set Yourself On Fire's first single, is pure, dreamy, streamlined power-pop; if it doesn't put a spring in your step, think seriously about therapy.

Throughout the album, Stars remind us of the volcanic passion that exists in our hearts and souls. Ironically, they do it in the most mild-mannered way possible -- perhaps to point out that it's actually a common occurrence. We set ourselves on fire every day, but some of us burn more brightly than others.



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