Stars' No One is Lost is a withdrawal from life's only absolute
No matter how you feel about their music, Stars is a group that have always known exactly what they’re doing, even if that understanding is defined by the dual pillars of what they are not – not “cool”, not buying into “rock star” – and what they are: “stars equals an engulfing universe as well as spurious celebrity”.
Their continuity has always hinged on the dual vocals of Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell and their celebratory mix of disco-esque late 70s/80s synthy pop and Smiths-like lyrical intensity – which has changed album to album – even if they’ve been heard mostly as a band producing interesting, fresh work with quirky highlights of true brilliance. They’re a study in the relationship between audience and band, the “universal” aspect of their pop aesthetic lending itself to that colonization the listener makes that is so easy to do with pop songs. No one wants to know what pop songs mean to the singer – we know what they mean to us.
This stands in opposition to meaningful lyrics that can’t be properly possessed by the listener until we’re sure our meaning correlates with the songwriter. The power of Morrissey’s lyrics lies in collective experience; the power of Yazoo lies in the ephemeral flashes of meaning that refuse ecstatic immersion. Stars unsettlingly straddle these opposing pop-positions in a celebratory style. If they slip into a cool irony, it’s usually an imposition from the listener.
It’s no surprise, then, that given a recent confrontation with death (their band manager and friend Eoin O’Leary was diagnosed with cancer) and their maturation as adults with long-term relationships, children, and political motivations, they’ve come out with an album that emphasizes this struggle to straddle the knowledge that, indeed, everyone is lost, including those you love, so the only thing to do is go to the discotheque and bang it all out in rapturous, fleeting joy for as many hours as you can stand it.
No One is Lost is not a post-modern examination of the absurdist reality of our situation, it’s a deliberate withdrawal from the depressing depths of life’s only absolute, into the tinny, slight world of pop, where the deepest thing you can say is “Put your hands up because everybody dies”.
The problems with this exercise are immediately obvious, because that sort of pop-cultural referencing calls forth accusations of irony and Stars are not trying to make a statement or plumb the depths with No One Is Lost. It seems with this album, they’ve finally hit the intrinsic difference between The Smiths and Yazoo, and the reasons that oil and water can only be mixed in the blood stream of the listener’s daily life. This review itself is a clear indicator of the dilemma inherent in No One is Lost – the album is not meant to be analysed in this way, and problematically begs for it at the same time.
So how do we listen to it? Alone in bed with a doobie or wearing gold lamé at a roller disco? No One is Lost, as good as it is, can’t properly be both those things and it seems the reach for something different has brought to the fore the challenge for Stars to be what they’re singing about. When they were a little less polished, we chorus-embraced the moments of brilliance that never properly got in the way of the pop-tune pleasures of a new-fashioned ode-to-80s that remarkably formed a cohesion we’d always known but never seen. There’s a forced gap now, that contains an interesting problem, and if anyone can solve it Stars can, but it hasn’t been solved for us yet, only highlighted in No One is Lost.
All that psychobabble aside, as a pop performance the polish and the DayGlo do embolden a strong feel for the roller disco queer-cool glo-mesh vibe of The Royal Phoenix, the defunct gay disco below the studio apartment they rented and turned into a recording studio, and where they made No One Is Lost. While the song quality might be superior in the slower tracks, it’s the catchy bridge and chorus cool of songs like “From the Night”, the title track and the really great “Turn It Up” – one of the best pop celebration songs going in the last few years.
When the album is this good, perhaps we can extend our listening to embracing a musical and lyrical problem a truly great band can invite, as part of the listening pleasure. Life is full of unsolved mysteries, and one of the few pleasures this life where everyone is lost affords is the challenge of long term problem solving, and sometimes that includes shutting it off and turning it up.