Set Yourself On Fire is the definitive Stars record: tightly focused arrangements, sterling songwriting, and the best male/female call-and-response singing ever.
thefacebook.com was 223 days old and only available to Mark Zuckerberg’s fellow Harvard classmates when Stars released Set Yourself On Fire in September 2004. George W. Bush was vilified as the most polarizing politician elected POTUS EVER, and it’s likely the most over-used word in Pitchfork record reviews that year was ‘orchestral’. While time changes many things, it hasn’t dimmed the allure of the stellar time-and-tempo-changing tunes on the then Montreal-based band’s third full length.
Stars took the ominous reading by vocalist Torquil Campbell’s dad that kicks off the record to heart: there was nothing left to burn, so the band threw relationships in various states of decay and the last flickering vestiges of youth on a funeral pyre, lit a match and let it all burn through their ‘soft revolution’ anthems. Love is often impossible to express through song without excessive sentimentality. In the early aughts, Stars came as close to perfection as anyone at making music that conveyed what it was like to meet, get off, and fall in and out of love without the benefit off location-based hook-up apps.
Doing The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” one better, the brilliantly titled “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” marries Stars’s pop acumen and affinity for Morrissey and The Smiths with swelling string arrangements that perfectly underscore Campbell and Amy Millan’s call-and-response singing. It stands as Millan and Campbell’s most poignant duet and one of this young century’s greatest opening songs. The title track picks up the band’s penchant for synths and electronics. Stars wrap the song’s tight indie-pop arrangement in bleeps, pops, and squiggly flourishes before the “Set Yourself On Fire” breaks down just passed the half-way mark into a languid piano-fed dream of smouldering embers that re-ignites when “Ageless Beauty” comes alive. As its name implies, the Millan-sung rocker remains an undiminished gem amongst Set Yourself On Fire’s many riches.
Set Yourself On Fire is a top-heavy record whose cylinders fire on full throttle right from the get-go, letting the built up momentum of its best songs carry the rest. Most, if not all, of those jewels, are set in the album’s first-half: “Reunion” is a sparkling (if light-weight) nostalgia-coloured pop tune; “What I’m Trying To Say” a crackerjack banger that’s both bitter and sweet; the musical breakdown in Campbell’s verse on “One More Night” (the follow-up of the story introduced by “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead”) always stirs something deep in my gut. The sexual escapades journaled in “The First Five Times” now sound endearing in their embarrassing confessionalism. In 2004, it felt like the epitome of TMI. Little did we know what social media sharing was about to unleash on an unsuspecting world.
Set Yourself On Fire is an album so good, they made it twice: 2007’s Do You Trust Your Friends? Turned over the tracklisting to their musical friends and relations to cover, remix, or rip to shreds and start again. No other record in Star’s catalogue could withstand that kind of treatment and come out sounding as good the second time around. One-off singles sprinkled throughout subsequent releases hit similar highs, but Set Yourself On Fire remains the definitive Stars record fifteen years on: tightly focused arrangements, sterling songwriting, and the best distillation of male/female call-and-response singing ever.