It’s not surprising to learn that Stars drew upon their friendship with Gord Downie as the impetus for their stand-alone single, “Are You With Me?”, but I’m glad I didn’t learn that until long after I fell in love with the song.
From atmospheric swirls and a simple piano line, “Are You With Me?” swells to an intense emotional crescendo with ease and grace. Stars haven’t sounded this solid, this sure of themselves or their musical impulses, in years. Initially, the song’s lyrical touchstones —“If you’re with me, then let’s leave now,”; “Can you feel me? / Can you hear me through the hum?” — felt like an outstretched hand to one-time fans like me that had fallen away. It sounded like a communique saying “Hi, we’re back. Sorry to have kept you waiting”.
There’s something in the way Torquil Campbell balances both power and fragility in his vocal performance that suggests a very raw, very real connection to the song’s core tenets. It’s obvious that there is indeed a message in “Are You With Me?”, one not directed at me or their fans. The band has said that the lyrics come from a “liquidy night” when Campbell sent messages to Downie’s old cell number. In retrospect, that feels so obvious. “Are You With Me?” is imbued with the kind of message we send out in the loneliness of night, in the depths of sorrow, and in the absence of faith. It’s a beacon into the afterlife — a hope, and a prayer, and a heartbreakingly beautiful ballad all wrapped into one. “Are You With Me?” is a plea to the spirits. A melancholic song that cherishes the fragility of friendship, the real pain of loss, and the hope that somewhere down the line, we’ll all get the chance to see each other again.
If I’d known from the start, I feel like the impact the song initially had on me would have been lessened. I find it reassuring that, through the music alone, Stars was once again able to make an emotional connection. No backstory, no explanation, just an outpouring of emotion — of love. Those are the ingredients for music and memories that stay with you forever.