Thirty years ago, music listeners didn’t have to wait long for their next shot at bombast. Every artist worth their mettle felt as if they had another Sergeant Pepper’s in them—a genre-breaking, grandiose, epic album just waiting to be brought forth. But for every Dark Side of the Moon, there are at least three albums that aimed for the stars but fell to Earth with a solid thud of self-parody.
Today, in a culture of one-hit wonders and 99-cent mp3 downloads, albums of a truly epic scale are far less common. And yet, for Montreal-based indie-pop band Stars, making an epic album seemed like the next important step to take.
“We had made some down-tempo electronic records and some stuff that wasn’t as big and lavish, but this time we wanted to make a big anthemic rock record,” says Stars’ bassist Evan Cranley. “Looking back at our four records, we realized that we hadn’t made a record like that yet. So we had the budget, and we took the time to make something big, raw and live-sounding. We tried to think about what kind of record we wanted to make before we started writing, so it was very conscious and very deliberate.”
The resulting recording, released last year, was In Our Bedroom After the War (Arts & Crafts), a startling mix of lush orchestration, tinny indie rock, Babyface-inspired ballads and electronic pop. It’s a record with its share of flaws, but it was also one of the best breakup albums of 2007. And with the ambitious musical scope, it’s also an old-fashioned album in a short-attention-span digital age.
“We are kind of old-fashioned in that way,” Cranley says. “We are old enough to remember how records were made and young enough to know how to release them. We are always going to be a traditional old-school, record-making band. We are all producers and songwriters, and that is how we like to make music.”
Built around the call-and-response songs of singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, In Our Bedroom After the War presents the he-said/she-said drama in an earnest, thought-provoking packaging. But is it a breakup album on a monumental scale, or is it really an extended metaphor about the state of the world?
Cranley sees parallels between the two themes, and says you can see the “war” metaphor in at least two ways. “It’s personal, and it’s also what we are going through now [in Iraq]. For me it’s personal, but for others it’s very political, so you can take what you want from it.”
If there is one home-run song on the album it’s “Take Me to the Riot,” a mid-tempo call to arms for the Chuck Taylor and tight-jeans crowd. The song never displays the fury that the title suggests, but it has a gorgeous melody and tight pop construction that sums up the band’s musical strengths.
But, if In Our Bedroom After the War isn’t really a nonpolitical-political album, or a breakup album that isn’t exactly about a breakup, what is it actually about? Is it about the state of the world, even if the themes have nothing to do with the world around it? The only safe things to say about the album are that it’s both personal and universal, that it’s perfect and flawed, and that it’s pure rock ‘n’ roll, circa 2008.
And one more thing: It never feels that the epic nature of the recording is forced. Cranley even claims that the album came naturally.
“We didn’t feel any pressure to make this album,” he says. “We felt like we were into the journey of our careers, and this is the record we wanted to make. We are all students of pop music, so a record like this wasn’t going to hurt us at this stage in our careers. I didn’t feel like we would let our fans down or anything.”
And they haven’t. Although critics have generally viewed the album as a lesser effort than Stars’ 2004 release, Set Yourself On Fire, the public reception to the album as a whole seems quite positive, particularly for an epic musical tale in the dying days of the album format.
“In some ways the record is on its way out,” Cranley observes. “What we try to do is to make stories, and to have the album as a storybook. Bands and artists are influenced by the way people listen to music now. They listen to it on cell phones and on little computer speakers now. There are no liner notes or info for people now [because of downloading music]. I remember getting into Steely Dan and reading the liner notes to find out about all of these awesome musicians; now that experience is lost.”
At the end of an era in how popular music is purchased and enjoyed, Stars has created an album that, for an avid listener at least, stands on its own merits.
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Stars plus Martin Royle
what: Wide-screen, cinematic indie pop
where: Orange Peel
when: Thursday, March 20 (9 p.m. $15. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)