When Stars set out to record their latest album, the dramatic and lush Set Yourself on Fire, the group had sexual healing in mind, but the plan was quickly derailed when the band took note of their surroundings.
"The goal was to make a sex record," singer Torquil Campbell said. "But when I started writing the lyrics, it got screwed up by what was going on in the world. So we made a death and sex record instead."
While occasionally libidinous, the Montreal quartet is incurably romantic through and through. And while Stars might not scream adolescent anguish at full volume or induce legions of teenage fans to recite their lyrics in fist-pumping robotic unison à la Dashboard Confessional, that doesn't mean they aren't equally emo in their own precious and grandiose way.
"We wanted to make something so beautiful that you could actually get married to it," Campbell said of Fire, the group's third full-length.
A multi-tiered metaphor for political and lovelorn desperate measures, Set Yourself on Fire doesn't see Stars simply wearing their hearts on their sleeves — they dress themselves head to toe in passionate emotions.
"It seems to be the only response to the endless cycle of evil, horror and madness that the world is being subsumed by," Campbell said, referencing the war in Iraq that was in full swing when Fire was recorded. "We need to start to burn; we need to sacrifice our sense of comfort and ego to speak up or the devils will keep on taking over."
But for every moment of enraged polemics, Fire also contemplates resignation with all matters of the heart. "When you fall in love you die a little bit, you give a little bit of yourself up, but you're also reborn in their eyes," Campbell said. "You get a new life as their [significant other]. That's what keeps us going in life; we keep on setting ourselves on fire and starting again until we were embers and blow away."
Centering on timeless female splendor, the album's first single, "Ageless Beauty," found inspiration in one of their favorite standbys, '90s noisy dream-rockers My Bloody Valentine. "We were listening to [MBV's] Loveless — surprise, surprise," Campbell chuckled. The unadorned but elegant performance video was shot by Chris Grismer, who also lensed videos for fellow Canadians the Arcade Fire and Death From Above 1979.
A second video is already waiting in the wings. Directed by another compatriot — labelmates Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew — the album's bittersweet overture, "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead," was filmed in wintry Montreal and almost caused the group to get hypothermia during the shoot. "It's a ghost story about a guy who goes skating every night to meet his dead lover on the frozen pond," Campbell said of the visually evocative and poetic video. "And they dance together for a while, but then death comes for them and he goes up in flames."
Sung with a heavy heart yet a glimmer of hope, the song is classic melancholy Stars. "It's about realizing how sad it is to fall in love with someone and then fall out of love with them and what a terrible disappointment that is," Campbell said. Apropos considering Fire was born not only from politicized exasperation, but also from the breakup of singer/guitarist Amy Milan and keyboardist Chris Seligman. "It's about separation," Milan said with a thoughtful pause before trailing off. "And no comment."
But unlike most heartbreak songs, Stars don't deal in soliloquies. Exchanging monologues for dialogue, both Campbell and Milan sing and weave melodic conversations that keep their perspective on the love song unique. "Rather than just having a guy saying, 'I'm sad 'cause you left me,' you also have the woman saying, 'I left you 'cause you're a complete spazz,' so there's that reality of both sides of the story happening that we like," he said.
Though the balance of love and politics seems like a strange tightrope to walk, Campbell finds the link between the political and the emotional intrinsic and undeniable.
"If you don't think about love and understand its importance in everyday life, then you can't talk about social change or social justice or revolution or any of those things because they're linked to a respect for other people. In this world, you can't be in love without thinking about the fact that someone else is dying."
Characteristically, Stars don't want you to like their record — they hope it has a profound impact on your life. "I just want [the audience] to have a reaction to it, and hopefully it will make them feel more alive and brings out the parts of the lives that are strange, amazing and beautiful."
Stars are on a North American tour that hits Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club on Friday, Brooklyn, New York's Southpaw on Saturday, Philadelphia's Theatre of Living Arts on Sunday and Boston's Paradise on Tuesday.