Veterans of the Canadian indie scene, Stars make a welcome return with their sixth studio album, The North. Released via ATO Records, this might get Stars more exposure than their last album, 2010's criminally underrated (in the UK at least) and self-released The Five Ghosts. With a few songs being given away free to their loyal fans to whet the appetite ahead of the album, the band are already flying high off the back of much positive feedback, but will the album live up to this?
Much like their career best Set Yourself on Fire, the album opens with a spoken-word quote: "Well, the only way I see this happening is in an extended ride north," taken from acclaimed Canadian author and pianist Glenn Gould's radio documentary The Idea of the North. In the documentary, the protagonist Wally Maclean shows his love for the North Canadian landscape and it quickly becomes clear this is an album with a similar subject matter. 'The Theory of Relativity' bursts into life shortly after this motivating speech and is full of synths and Torquil Campbell's soothing vocals, talking about wishing how it could be 93: "But it can't be '93 sadly cause I wish it could forever. You call it luck I call it tragedy," swiftly followed by him describing how: "We got a rock DJ, we got a total fucking alcoholic" in his slender and soft tones. One of Stars' trademark strengths has always been the charming interplay between Torquil's vocals and Amy Millan's and it makes its first appearance here as Amy sings back: "What would you say, if I fell apart, could you bring me back?" The interaction between these two voices is prevalent throughout the record.
Second track 'Backlines' is far rockier and sounds like one of Broken Social Scene's anthemic guitar moments, Amy's sweet Cardigans-esque vocals take the lead on this one as she describes: "calling from the backlines." Surprisingly fist-pumping, it's a shame it barely lasts over two minutes, although also in a way this is what makes it work so well. The dreamy and gentile title track of the album opens with the lines: "It's so cold in this country, every road home is long" – lyrics that instantly draw you in, and the narrative gets even more compelling when Torquil states: "When it came to leave, it was never the right day" and "Is he asleep in the snow?". The intrigue is prevalent throughout The North, especially with songs titled 'Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It' and 'Do You Want to Die Together?', the former appears to be Torquil providing fatherly advice against the backdrop of an amazing flowing drumbeat that brings to mind Patrick Wolf's happier moments and elements of Metric. Torquil sings about being high on love, while even the stoniest of hearts will melt when Amy asks: "What do I do?. 'Do You Want to Die Together?' opens in a waltzy fashion while the duo describe a macabre love affair that opens with Torquil stating: "I love you til the day I die", and Amy responding "Please don't die today" – although these feelings soon change… Despite its experimental introduction, 'Through the Mines' soon evolves into a jaunty acoustic number with Anna's sensual vocals recalling Feist at her most enticing and then further transforms with an ending Doves would be proud of.
There is another spoken word sample at the beginning of 'A Song is Weapon' before an angry Torquil questions: "How do you keep a straight face when you're telling all those lies?" and states that: "You are the long-forgotten prodigal son." Despite this outpouring, he is still singing it so delicately and this song has an 80s UK indie influence, especially from The Smiths, crossed with the fine US alt-pop of The Postal Service. We have to admit to being a little afraid when we heard the lyrics: "With a song, I can only hope to kill you" though. The piano-led 'The 400' is almost a love letter to Canada, although told with the bittersweet honesty and integrity that Jeffrey Lewis specialises in so well. Heartbreaking and sure to bring a tear to the eye of many, delayed guitar effects surround the sorrow as Torqul sings: "You know that I will see you again, it's just an hour or two by aeroplane, unpack the car, unpack the car, I'm tired of what I do" and "It has to go right this time." The closing 'Walls' sees Torquil and Amy again tangle with each other, before describing themselves falling into the bedroom and not being able to get away. The build-up almost takes up a classic Disney sound before gently gliding to a heart-warming finish. At one point on the album, Stars ask: "What's the use in writing one more song?" (the response given is: "Because it's what you know"), and we're lucky they've stuck to what they know and given us another solid album.