Stars – Heart
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
This is how it starts: a drum loop that occasionally fizzles out like a late-‘90s modem, supper club bass, half a piano hook, and Torquil Campbell saying “Time can take its toll on the best of us.” He sounds calm, paternal even. “Heart” is only the third track on the album it names, and after the way “What the Snowman Learned About Love” takes forever to usher you into the album and the perfection of “Elevator Love Letter” the song seems underwhelming at first. Six minutes of this?
Campbell is singing about someone else with the dispassionate remove of a third person narrator. He sounds like he's counseling them, reassuring them that the wounds of youth and love don't last or at least are more tolerable than they seem. Amy Millan doesn't come in until the chorus, and it seems like she's telling a different story from Campbell's ruminations on leaving the TV on overnight:
Alright, I can say what you want me toHint: She's not the TV. Millan's voice is highly changeable both in Stars' songs and her own, which can be a double edged sword. Here she swoons in half time with the music, as those initial elements are eventually draped in strings, occasional guitar strums that might as well be harp runs and a customarily mournful French horn. Her tone here is somewhere between sincerely placating and slightly exasperated. Those words are all she will sing except for one later, halting, repeat of the line “I'm still in love with you” which brings the song proper to a close at 4:30 or so (normally the nearly 90 second, string-led coda would be excessive, but by that point we won't care). She might as well be an answering machine message, albeit a very pretty one.
Alright, I can do all the things you do
Alright, I'll make it all up for you
I'm still in love with you
I'm still in love with you
For fully half of its length the second verse is identical to the first. Just as you think “Heart” is going to wander in circles for its duration, however, Campbell starts singing rather than talking; suddenly it's clear that the person he's singing about/to is not someone he feels dispassionately about. They're back from paradise and he tells them: “You fall back into where you started / Make up words to songs you used to know,” but the wistfulness in his voice leaves it unclear whether he disapproves. Is he part of “where you started?” This time when Millan comes in it's clearly a comfort. Even though she's offering to “make it all up for you” the gesture comes out of love. He chimes in for the closing lines of the second chorus, but he's muttering, distracted, under his breath. Humming along to something on the radio.
I hate to keep quoting lyrics, but there's no other way to get at where “Heart” is going and how sharply it seems to veer the first time you hear it; at the beginning of the third and unexpected verse it certainly is. Campbell gets off one bitter bon mot (“I'll leave the dying young stuff up to you”) but his, ahem, heart never seems in it. The song segues smoothly into the last part of Campbell's story:
You get back on the latest flight to paradiseThe pain shimmering through his voice on those last three lines, and the way his voice echoes just slightly out of place as he sings “floor” is powerful enough to warrant its own Seconds. A translation has occurred; our removed narrator has crossed into the story, and in fact become its victim. But that's not the moment I wanted to talk about here: it's just another in the sequence events that lends the moment its power. There are seconds that are written about perfect moments that exist sufficient by themselves; although I would say that the one in “Heart” is more powerful than many of them it gets that way through its dependence on the full sweep and arc of the track and the interplay of the two vocals, one remaining steady, one slowly crumbling from rest to heartbreak.
I found out from a note taped to the door
I think I saw your airplane in the sky tonight
Through my window lying on the kitchen floor
As Millan sings the last chorus Campbell interjects, no longer singing along with the radio. Now he's pleading with that note on his door: “I want more, give me more.” Stars are above all a stylish band and so his loss is delivered not in incoherent howls but a kind of high and pure desolation. At his worst, it's the best his voice has ever sounded. His never-more-controlled singing perversely emphasizes just how wrecked he is, curled in a ball on the linoleum. For maybe the first time in the song Millan truly takes the front of the stage, Campbell's “I want more from you” coming to the listener cleanly and piercingly from the back of the mix.
I'm a sucker for songs that present the total unabashed psychosis of romantic loss, like the Dears' “Pinned Together, Falling Apart,” and songs that present such a devastatingly rigid facade of coping that the pain is only too obvious (the exemplar there will probably always be 10cc's “I'm Not in Love,” which can only address the issue through the oblique sample of a woman repeating, “Be quiet, big boys don't cry”). What “Heart” does that stuns and wounds me every time I hear it, without ever deviating from its smoothly polished synth/chamber-pop hybrid is to show the latter shifting into the former, contrasting and bracing the two modes to render the whole episode even more raw and present no matter how lofty Campbell keeps his singing style. It's the musical equivalent of talking to a friend who suddenly, shockingly, breaks down in the middle of a conversation, and just as sure to break through your defences.