I have never seen Stars live but always like to imagine that the opening track of this album is played as they filter on stage in darkness and then they launch live into the second track. I love this album so much I have unhealthily imagined this scenario far too many times to be normal. The first track, ‘The Beginning After The End’, is an instrumental synth piece dominated by a heartbeat drum. As the track fades, a woman’s voice intones, “Oh the blood and the treasure and the losing it all / The time that we wasted and the place where we fall / Will we wake in the morning and know what it was for / Up in our bedroom after the war?” The tone of the album is immediately created: it is to be a record of loss and rebuilding. Whether the war is real or metaphorical is open to conjecture. The songs that follow can be interpreted as a society attempting to rebuild itself after a cataclysmic war or the attempts of an individual to rebuild themselves after the upheaval of a broken love affair.The second track, ‘The Night Starts Here’, would be the perfect opening song of my imagined live set. Over the top of a single synth note, Amy Milan starts to sing, “The night starts here, the night starts here / Forget your name, forget your fear.” It’s as though you are being invited into a new world, free to be whoever you want, free of normal daily behaviour. Then her male vocal foil, Torquin Campbell, takes over, “The dust at dawn is rained upon / Attaches itself to everyone / No one is spared, no one is clean / It travels places you’ve never been or seen before.” If we are going on this journey, we are clearly to be taken somewhere different but also somewhere that is not entirely safe. Milan starts the title refrain again and bass and drums come thundering out of the speakers taking the listener aback at their force. And so the template is set: dual and often duelling male and female vocals; poetic, often bleak, lyrics about the human condition offset by pretty melodies.
The bass intro of the next track, ‘Take Me to the Riot’ , recalls Kim Deal. War is always accompanied by riot and this song takes an oblique look at a damaged relationship that seems to have its meaning defined by the Saturday riot: “Saturday nights in neon lights / Sunday in the cell / Pills enough to make me feel ill / Cash enough to make me well /Take me, take me to the riot…” It’s a lyric that explores a sado / masochistic relationship using the riots as a backdrop for this: “You sprung me, I’m grateful /I love when you tell me not to speak /I owe you but I know you / You’ll have me back but it’s gonna take a week.” It’s a bleak scenario with the narrator eventually pleading, “You despise me and I love you /
It’s not much but it’s just enough to keep…” but the music itself is urgent, vibrant and bristles with the energy and excitement of being caught up in a riot where “Hands burn / for a stone, a bomb, / to shiver down the glass.” ‘My Favourite Book’ seems deliberately placed next as a counterpoint to the previous relationship (“How I know your face / All the ways you move / You come in / I can read you / You’re my favourite book”) while ‘Midnight Coward’ is a dialogue between Milan and Campbell over the pretences and insecurities inherent in domestic partnerships: “What’s your middle name? / How do you play the game? /I’ll be the first to leave …I can see what’s coming / But I’m not saying it.”
‘The Ghost of Genova Heights’ merges the tale of a returning soldier who comes back to terrorise his former lover with a funky beat – well as funky as Stars ever get: let’s be honest, it’s not George Clinton. ‘Personal’ is a duet between two lonely people who arrange via a lonely hearts column to meet but who then miss each other, either deliberately or accidentally. ‘Barricade’ returns to the theme of the earlier riots but this time in the form of a beautiful piano ballad where “In Bermondsey in Burberry, you held me at the barricade / The pigs arrived with tear gas / And I wept at the mistakes we made / We stalked the streets like animals / And danced as windows shattered /For our island, for the thrill of it, for everything that mattered.” Years later, the protagonist glimpses his former riot lover and longs for the anger that made them young, the hatred that brought them together even though the love has died.
The melody of ‘Window Bird’ is reminiscent of The Cure’s ‘In Between Days’ while ‘Bitches in Tokyo’ is the greatest Blondie song Blondie never recorded. ‘Life2: The Unhappy Ending’ is an incredibly ambitious song with the protagonist imagining his life as a film and the lyrics using the terminology of film (Scene 1, Fade in, Cut to). By the end of the song, he knows his life is over and the script can’t be rewritten. The following song, ‘Today Will Be Better, I Swear’, is a direct counterpoint to the pessimism expressed before. By far the most optimistic song on the album, Amy Milan concludes “Today, today, is gonna be a better one / There’s nothing more to take in / Going wrong.”
The last track, ‘In Our Bedroom After the War’, is one of those epic tracks that used to characterise final songs on vinyl records (think Cockney Rebel’s ‘Death Trip’ or ‘Falling Down’) where an initial quiet opening develops into full blown orchestration. Lush, beautiful and compelling, the title track unites the two central themes on the LP: war and the destruction it causes and how fragile and fleeting love is – both seek to destroy us and “All the living are dead, and the dead are all living / The war is over and we are beginning….”