No one ever addresses the downside of making a great album. It almost seems like a ridiculous paradox, but it’s there in the quandary: what do you do after you’ve made a great album? With critics and fans watching you closely, there is an immense pressure to recreate your initial success. This is the position that Canadian indie rock band Stars found themselves in following the critically acclaimed 2004 release, Set Yourself On Fire. Three years, one Juno nomination, one remix album, and two solo projects later, Stars have released In Our Bedroom After the War. The comparisons are inevitable.
There’s no use in skirting around the issue; In Our Bedroom After the War pales in comparison to Set Yourself On Fire. Perhaps the outcome would be different if the band had decided to take their music in a drastically different direction, but as it stands, the songs off In Our Bedroom sound like b-sides to their first LP. Stars has traded the wonderful brew of joyful exuberance and bittersweet heartache for a watered-down blend. You could even argue that the new album is a regression to the more subdued sounds of Stars’ second release, Heart.
However, if we could set aside the history of Stars for a moment and evaluate the new release without preconceptions, we can uncover worthy gems. The shimmering evensong “The Night Starts Here” intertwines the vocals of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, and the effect is most aptly described by the title of Amy Millan’s solo album, Honey From the Tombs: gravity and sweetness combined. “Take Me to the Riot” celebrates the enticing darkness faced by a lost soul in the city. “Barricade” has Stars at their storytelling best, an unusual lovers’ tale set against a backdrop of anarchy.
In Our Bedroom After the War is unlikely to win Stars any new converts, and old fans will be hung up on the brilliance of their last album. That’s the burden of producing a great album: you might follow it up with a good album, but if it isn’t as dazzling as the last one, no one’s willing to listen.