The artwork for Stars' Set Yourself on Fire is eye-catching and dramatic, like a protest painting or Keith Haring subway drawing. And that's before you find the inside shot of a woman in a ski mask and little else, contemplating a flaming hand torch. The art direction's boldness complements the maturity in Stars' music, where nothing's just indie pop and string arrangements sound as perfect as the keyboards. Vocalists Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan enunciate every word with careful precision, and they sing of remembered high-school romances, dead ex-lovers, and drunk current ones in basic but powerfully evocative language. It's a twentysomething life, told in short story form. In opener "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead," Campbell and Millan's characters don't rekindle their relationship, but they don't apologize for its end, either. "I'm not sorry I met you," they harmonize. "I'm not sorry it's over/I'm not sorry there's nothing to save," and the song's strings and brass build to a surging outro that's the wordless acknowledgement of everything they had. The title track is augmented by strings of its own, keening dizzily in the background of an undeniable electronic pop pulse, and "What I'm Trying to Say" does the same thing, but replaces the strings with electric guitar. "Reunion"'s near-perfect guitar pop brings to mind Spoon, and mid-album mates "Sleep Tonight" and "First Five Times" have different views on the intent of (and locations for) modern romance. The songs blend trumpet, keyboard effects, acoustic guitar, and electronic and analog percussion for an intelligent pop sound that doesn't need bells and whistles to be unique. Stars rely instead on melody, charisma, and lyrics as sharp as any modern essayist, and it's all they need to sell the quiet grandness of Set Yourself On Fire.
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AllMusic Review by Johnny Loftus