For all the bands that have so obviously aped Joy Division over the past decade or so, it’s hard to think of a single band leader who’s managed to capture the spirit of frontman Ian Curtis in quite the same way Torquil Campbell, lead singer and chief songwriter of Montreal-based indie-pop band Stars, has. The music is different, of course, and Campbell never really seems to be on the edge in quite the same way Curtis actually was, but the unmistakable similarity is in his very apparent obsession with love and death and the unsettling, uncomfortable relationship between the two.
This is the heavy, necessarily dramatic territory that Campbell and his most notable co-conspirator, Amy Millian, have now mined for over a decade, and five albums, the most recent of which is The Five Ghosts. It was written and recorded in Vancouver following the birth of Campbell’s first child and the death of his father—personal experiences that would seem to have provided all the inspiration not only Campbell, but the rest of the band as well, would need. And in fact, it’s the less outwardly eccentric, more classically pop-minded Amy Millian, not Campbell, whose presence is felt most on The Five Ghosts. The sense of drama throughout is considerably less prevalent than on their previous outings, due at least in part to the fact that all five band members reportedly did more of the writing together in one room than ever before. There’s an unmistakable directness to many of the songs here: “I Died So I Could Haunt You,” featuring a classic back-and-forth between singers, is perhaps the most straightforward pop song they’ve ever written, more in keeping with the maniacal peppiness of The New Pornographers than anything else. “Fixed” is similarly upbeat, despite chronicling the end of a damaging relationship, and “We Don’t Want Your Body” is an awkwardly aggro, sexed-up dialogue between two people who continuously let each other down.
They run out of steam toward the end of the album, with some relatively sleepy tracks that feel frustratingly tossed off: “Changes” is full of toothless platitudes, and “The Last Song Ever Written” is as overwrought as its title. Front-loaded as it may be, though, The Five Ghosts is another solid effort from a band that has learned one very important lesson over the years: Love may tear us apart, yes, but an effective hook will make it all better. At least for a few minutes.