Montreal-based Stars had been building an impressive reputation since the release of albums Set Yourself On Fire (2004) and In Our Bedroom After The War (2007). Led by songwriters and co-vocalists Torq Campbell and Amy Millan, the pair had already become masters of confiding dark secrets atop beautifully orchestrated pop songs. Part of the early noughties gang of rising Canadian indie bands (see also Arcade Fire, The Dears and Broken Social Scene, whom Millan plays with), Stars music is melancholic yet uplifting, perfect indie pop musing on death and mortality.
The Five Ghosts was first released on the bands’ fledgling Soft Revolution label in 2010. It begins with the spectral Dead Hearts, spooked out and vulnerable following an encounter with something not quite of this world. The subject matter of Dead Hearts sets the tone for the whole album with I Died So I Could Haunt You and We Don’t Want Your Body conjuring images of a human form inhabited by the phantasmagorical. Wasted Daylight is located at track two on Five Ghosts and finds Amy Millan trying to become invisible by crawling into her partners shadow. Is this the sound of a band retreating from the spotlight?
We move on with the aforementioned I Died So I Could Haunt You which is another early highlight melding barren imagery to a sublime pop skeleton. Torq and Amy are heard joyfully trading vocals on the killer line ‘I died so I could have you, I died so I could haunt you’ and it’s a wonderfully subversive moment. So how on earth do you follow this? Oh yes I know, just casually drop the song Fixed into the mix. Fixed is surely one of the bands best ever radio tracks and if I’m being honest, my personal introduction to the band. If there is such a thing as the perfect pop tune I have a feeling this might be it. Seemingly weightless and in danger of just floating away forever, Fixed is a brilliant tune that makes great use of the word ‘Fisticuffs’ and is therefore assured of remaining one of my favourite songs of all time. Only four tracks in, but already we find prisoner to the spell cast by The Five Ghosts strange allure.
Despite being released in the summer months, The Five Ghosts is clearly a winter record. The melodies evoke long-forgotten Christmas carols whilst the fizzing synths and other-worldly background voices add an iciness to the already chilly atmosphere. Although it works when the sun is out, you will find this record most rewarding in those dark winter months. Try it.
Side Two begins with He Dreams He’s Awake, all layered vocal harmonies and ominous synth sounds, oddly reminiscent of 1970’s cult sci-fi TV show The Stone Tape. The mood is lifted by the gorgeous drifting pop waltz of Changes whilst The Passenger recalls dusty memories of that first synth pop goldrush way back in the early nineteen eighties when a lot of ‘throwaway’ music was darker than it sounded. The Last Song Ever Written is both a great title and an anthem for a doomed discotheque whilst How Much More kicks off it's cobwebs to take us ice-skating at the edge of the world. Ending with the permafrost of Winter Bones, the door closes all too soon on our forty minute trip into another world. So we get up and put the record on again, all the while searching for clues to this album's hidden meanings. It’s possible the genesis of this album began with 2008’s Sad Robots EP where the band begin to invert their natural pop instincts for something more ethereal. But then again, maybe that’s just me and my version of events.
Whatever your personal view, we must all agree that The Five Ghosts is the sound of a talented band stretching it’s musical limbs. The lyrics are beautifully observed and expertly delivered whilst the music is deftly crafted with an almost imperceptible lightness of touch. The Five Ghosts is the sound of five musicians playing as one to deliver a vision of otherworldly elegance. Torq Campbell has often said it’s his personal favourite Stars album which makes everyone at NAKED Record Club very proud to be able to bring this record back to vinyl. And eco-friendly vinyl at that!
Dream on Stars, may you reign forever over us…
Here's a video of the glorious Fixed:
Here's The Five Ghosts Spotify playlist - it will, of course, sound 100x better on vinyl!:
and here is NAKED's Stars compilation playlist: