Canadian indie-pop mainstays Stars have always been preoccupied with the passage of time. “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” their breakout hit from the 2004 release Set Yourself On Fire that many will recognize from Degrassi and The O.C., considers the oddness of a chance encounter with an old lover after years apart. “All of that time you thought I was sad, I was trying to remember your name,” marvels vocalist Torquil Campbell—a consideration of the strange way time and healing can fade painful memories into nothing at all.
From Capelton Hill, the band’s new release, connects that familiar preoccupation with a new anxiety about what happens when all that time runs out. “This band has always been us trying to navigate what it means to be inside a life that is going to end,” says vocalist and guitarist Amy Millan. Here, the angst makes room for an expanded sonic palette, with shades of new wave and electro-pop woven into the band’s chamber-pop style. Throughout Capelton Hill’s 12 tracks, however, Stars also harken back to their roots: expansive pop duets between Campbell and Millan, the pure-hearted stuff of teenage mixtapes spliced with a newfound sense of mortality.
First track “Palmistry” begins with a sample of the film Séance on a Wet Afternoon—perhaps an homage to “Ex-Lover”’s famous sample of Campbell’s father decreeing, “When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” The new track’s fixation on a missing woman from the past is nearly the inverse of the former’s passive forgetfulness. “Tell me what the future will be,” urges Campbell, offering his hands for a palm reading and begging to know what’s next. It’s an ironic question for a band who deal in the tricks of memory: If you’re trapped in the past or afraid of the future, is it possible to make a future at all?
Meanwhile, “Pretenders,” a romp through ‘80s production and memories of a reckless youth, reflects on growing old with affection and honesty. “All our bets on being young forever,” Millan recalls warmly of the band’s origins. Her memories of hopping turnstiles and going to dive bars interlace with synths and guitars that suggest both Chrissy Hynde’s titular band and The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” a fitting homage to nostalgic favorites. But “Pretenders” stays away from idealizing those memories in favor of looking on them fondly from a distance.
Later, on “Patterns,” Millan reflects on the strength that their connection has created. “What I wouldn’t do for you,” she calls, alongside imagery of drowning and walking for miles before stumbling through doorways with exhaustion. The pop hyperbole creates familiar heightened stakes—this is the band behind “In Our Bedroom After the War,” after all—that are beautifully channeled to reflect back on Stars’ legacy.
There are times when From Capelton Hill feels unfocused. “Back at the End” and “That Girl” flash through a series of different settings without much to ground them, as if the band’s approach to their history and the future they stare down is uneasy. Title track “Capelton Hill,” however, sweeps in with a reflection on evolution centered at Campbell’s family home, an idyllic area in the foothills of Quebec that he describes as “a place where things in my mind, in my life, they’ve never changed.” Among the routines of locking up a summer home for the season, orchestral strings and a Britpop backing accompany memories of falling in and out of love, tumbling into ditches while kissing, and the jarring, abiding question: “What has all of this been for?”
The answer, Stars conclude, is the act of creating memories in the first place. “Just being together for 20 years is a piece of art in and of itself,” remarks Campbell of the band’s time together, a sentiment that’s supported in “Capelton Hill”’s refrain, “I told you we were here to sing / I told you we were meant to keep each other company.” And throughout the album’s twists and turns, Millan and Campbell build off each other’s energies the way they always have, asking and answering each other with grace and sensitivity.
In the end, it’s that connection that buoys From Capelton Hill, an offering that will be familiar to the band’s longtime fans while also making room for something new. On “If I Ever See London Again,” towards the end of the album, the two seem to ask both each other and their audience for support as they head in this new direction. “I need you, baby,” they implore in unison, “to move to the future with me.”
Annie Parnell is a host and writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in The Boot, PopMatters, Audiofemme and elsewhere. She can be found identifying native plant species in her backyard, on Twitter at @avparnell, or at her website, avparnell.wordpress.com.
Listen to a 2021 Stars performance from the Paste archives below.