Its title is loaded – simultaneously ambiguous, intimate, troubled, and peaceful. It evokes the power with which romance is able to eclipse everything that conspires to destroy it, and also the residue of sadness that remains in the calm aftermath of conflict. In Our Bedroom After the War, the name of Stars’ fourth, newest – and, without question, best – full-length album, is mysterious, grand, and multi-faceted. Which is fitting, because the 13 marvelous songs collected under that name are as well. Each and every one of them.
“What is the darkest possible situation that I could try to turn into a beautiful pop song?” Stars frontman Torquil Campbell asks. “That was sort of my mission with this record. If you could make horror movies that were like love stories, that would be my ultimate genre.”
Which isn’t to say that Bedroom is dark or difficult music. On the contrary, it may be the most nakedly euphoric-sounding collection the band has made yet. And it was made, last spring at Vancouver’s Warehouse recording studio, amidst an atmosphere of unprecedented synergy and self-belief.
Set Yourself on Fire, Stars’ previous studio album, provided the Montreal-spawned quintet with their international breakthrough, five years after the band was first hatched by the duo of Campbell and keyboardist Chris Seligman while they were living near-penniless in New York City. Now Gold-certified in Canada, Fire proved so enduringly popular in so many parts of the world that the band left on tour following its 2004 release and barely stopped for the next two years. Suddenly, this most sophisticated of pop groups was required to adapt to the life of something its members never expected to become: road warriors.
Yet while that life brought about moments of great personal turbulence amongst the band (one of which inspired at least one new song title, the irreverent “Bitches in Tokyo”), it also made Stars – which had traditionally spent long stretches apart between albums – a lithe, artful fighting unit. You can now hear that extraordinary evolution all over Bedroom; the result, says bassist and guitarist Evan Cranley, who co-writes most of Stars’ music with Seligman, of “a lot of natural, off-the-cuff playing – not erasing every single mistake, trying to keep the most beautiful mistakes possible.”
“There’s very few things that phase us now,” says Campbell, “so the relaxation and the toughness and the confidence of the playing [on Bedroom] is because everyone is very comfortable with what they do.”
“We’ve been together for seven years and experienced a plethora of things, and still genuinely love one another,” says singer and guitarist Amy Millan, who became an acclaimed solo artist with the release of her debut solo album, 2006’s Honey from the Tombs. “With this record, it just shows the confidence of our friendship and our ability to get through a lot of things. And we push each other, too – that’s another reason why we trust each other.”
"There’s a very high level of expectation in this band for each other’s work,” adds Campbell. “There’s a sense that you have to come to the table with things that are very interesting and good or someone will tell you that they’re not, and we were especially good this time about doing that in a way that was respectful and constructive. It helped to make the whole album work better.”
Drummer Pat McGee offers the most emphatic description of the making of Bedroom: “From the beginning, everything has gone exactly according to plan. We had a vision, and we conquered every step of that vision.”
That vision is consistent with Stars’ characteristic knack for melodic, literate pop songs. But never before have their songs sounded so widescreen, nor have Campbell’s and Millan’s eye for detail – the crucial minutiae that makes a good lyric great – been so acutely focused. Indeed, the band’s compositional skills have become so finely honed as to be almost telepathic. Seligman recalls being in Montreal, playing the chords for what would become Bedroom’s epic title track down the telephone to Campbell, who was in Vancouver. “He heard the chords and said, ‘That’s exactly it!’” Seligman says. “He had already written the words. We were in two different cities, but it was almost like the music and the words were meant to be together. Torquil had an intense reaction to that – it was such a coincidence.”
From beginning to end, In Our Bedroom After the War sounds like the product of similar magic. Whether the clarion call of “The Night Starts Here” (perhaps the closest Stars have come to full-on rock), the percolating Steely-Dan-at-the-disco groove of “The Ghost of Genova Heights,” or the heartbreaking melancholy of the above-mentioned title track, it’s the work of a band that has become absolutely sure of its strengths, but that hasn’t forgotten the beauty of simplicity. And while some of it is reflective of the tumultuous times in which it was written, Bedroom ultimately leaves the listener with the feeling of joy and contentment that comes from having heard a truly great album – an art form that, in this rapid-fire cultural climate, still has incomparable value.
“To me, that’s our responsibility in writing pop songs,” says Campbell, “is that no matter how grim it is, it’s your life, and we have to try to make it beautiful for three-and-a-half minutes.”