The Five Ghosts is the fifth studio album from Canadian indie pop band Stars. It opens with what is arguably the standout track of the album, Dead Hearts; setting the scene for what we expect to be a journey through lush synth sounds, poetic lyrics and the soothing male-female shared and harmonised vocals of Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan. Dead Hearts is one of those songs that immediately captures your full attention and gives you shivers upon the very first listen. Even the lyrics evoke intrigue and mystery from the first verse: “Tell me everything that happened / Tell me everything you saw / They had lights inside their eyes / They had lights inside their eyes.” The song makes you feel like you’re floating underwater, and as it progresses and more layers are added, you drift closer to the surface, until all the instruments swell together in a soaring conclusion that pushes your head out of the water, and you are able to breathe again. It’s the kind of song that you become fully immersed in.
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The second track is the Postal Service-esque Wasted Daylight, which, while not making quite as much of an impact as the opening track, is still commendable; more upbeat, more synthetic instrumentation, catchy, and its lyrics paint a portrait of indifferent youth. Changes is another track on the album reminiscent of Stars’ previous work with its dynamics that rise and fall to dance alongside the enigmatic yet poignant lyrics (“It’s dull, this dusk, this desk, this dust / My eyes adjust / I’ll blow out the flame / Can you and me remain?”), the nostalgic, clock-like ticking of the drumbeat, the swaying lull of Millan’s crooning and the slow build-up to the final crescendo.
Going by the first two tracks, it seemed like Stars had taken their reputation for making beautiful, moving music and adapted it slightly: there were more electronic effects present, yet songs were handled with the same old charm and poignancy as in their previous albums. However, Dead Hearts set the bar much too high. Most of the tracks on The Five Ghosts are unoriginal, forgettable and lacking in all the elements that made the opening track so fantastic.
I Died So I Could Haunt You is an example of where Stars went wrong with this album. The arrangement is cluttered, and the atmosphere of the song clashes with the lyrics: “Thousands of ghosts in the darkness / Lost in a strange neighborhood / The lights from the warm houses haunt them / They forgot what they lost but they know it was good.” Whatever message the song is trying to convey is drowned out by the distracting off-beat drums competing with a bland melody line, not to mention non-existent transitions between verse and chorus. This results in a mish-mash of sounds that do not gel together to make a good song: what we hear is a jumble of synths, drums and vocals that the band tried to stitch to one another but failed at closing the seams. It just doesn’t flow, and the same can be said of the album as a whole.
The only consistency about The Five Ghosts is the recurring themes within the lyrics. All the songs are about “ghosts”; whether that implies literal ghosts, references to the past, shadows and shells of people, emptiness or nothingness. The great thing about Stars’ lyrics is how open to interpretation they are. Unfortunately, the lyrics in this album are tainted by accompanying music that is generic and lacking in dynamics and expression; this is not to say that the songs are awful, as most of them are catchy and have the potential to be good songs. Overall, however, The Five Ghosts just doesn’t quite match up to some of Stars’ previous albums, such as Set Yourself on Fire and In Our Bedroom After the War. The songs on these albums were more intricate, well-formed, carefully layered, distinct, and they felt authentic; in contrast, The Five Ghosts feels too forced.