Tuesday, October 6, 2009

#86. 'I'm not sorry there's nothing to say'

Stars "Your Ex Lover Is Dead"

If someone had told me that Stars would turn out to be the Canadian version of Belle and Sebastian when I first heard them I'd have laughed. A lot. If I thought about it more I could have probably seen it coming, but Heart marked the first true disappointment in my post-You Forgot It In People binge on the Canadian independent music scene. It was well made, but the songs had this naivete to them that just rubbed me the wrong way. It was all too cutesy and twee, the music was like mainlining pixie-stix and not in a good way. Cut to one year later and Set Yourself on Fire was one of my favorite albums ever. Somehow the band had discovered the sort of sophistication that was enough to counteract their twee-er tendencies, essentially the same trick that Belle and Sebastian used at first then forgot when Isobel Campbell left. They went from not seeming to know how to use their particualr gifts - and a recent re-listen to Heart confirmed that the elements that made Set Yourself on Fire so good were there - to using them to absolutely perfect effect in less than a year. It was shocking to hear at first, but the shock settled down to admiration pretty quickly.

I was all set to have "Ageless Beauty" on this list but once I realized that the album's lead-off track "Your Ex Lover Is Dead" was also released as a single it was easy to cast the former - a very, very good song in its own right - to the side in the latter's favor. There's just a decidedly bigger 'wow' factor to "Ex Lover," whether it's due to its thorough storytelling, involved arrangement or utter classiness it just stands so high above most other examples of this type of music that I can't ignore it. It may have its base in some familiar tropes - the he said/she said structure most specifically - but it's the only time I've heard this type of song go this way. There's plenty of examples of songs tackling the worst case scenario of running into an ex, but it's rarer to hear the best case scenario, especially as its presented here.

In my mind, the best case scenario for running into an ex would be complete ambivalence on both sides. Maybe a slight, nostalgic twinge at the first sight but that's all that ever shows. You'll talk but there won't be those awkward moments of 'we're not a couple anymore' non-bonding but an air of moving on above everything else. It's the dream, one that rarely occurs without an extensive passage of time between the break-up and the meeting, and it's captured perfectly by co-vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan here. Neither party is overly emotional, and while Millan seems to be digging deeper into the past than Campbell it all culminates in a glorious detente at the song's end, when their voices join on 'I'm not sorry I met you/I'm not sorry it's over/i'm not sorry there's nothing to say'. It's the perfect picture of a former couple who have both moved along to such a degree that any sort of feelings that came to pass in the immediate aftermath have gone by the wayside. One might go as far as to call it the most mature breakup song ever recorded, or at least among them, and I'd wholeheartedly agree.

The lyrical side is only half of it though. As with all the songs on Set Yourself on Fire the production and arrangement are spot on, miles beyond either of the first two Stars albums and close to the level of the first three B&S albums - my gold standard chamber pop. It's another in the long line of songs on this list where simplicity does wonders for the song's overall feel; the musical parts aren't at all complex, but their combined effect is absolutely stunning. A lot of it's the buildup that delineates the verses from the chorus (such as it is) but there's the fringe instruments that add so much color to the track to consider as well. I'm talking about the trombone/harmonica underpinning in the verses, the violin swell in the chorus, the cello (bowed bass?) riff that acts as the first instrumental hook. Those little additions add as much life to the track as the general structure does, and the Campbell/Millan vocals on top of it are the perfect way to finish the song off. It's not the best chamber pop single the decade spat out but damn if it's not an effective bit of B&S worship.

Coming up tomorrow: My first love, musically speaking.

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