Stars are having growing pains. Since their breakthrough record Set Yourself on Fire in 2004, they’ve become a footnote of the Broken Social Scene sphere of bands, lacking the adaptability of Feist, the arena rock crossover of Metric, or the staying power of the titular Canadian supergroup. The band has been destined to release record after record in a gradual decline of quality that makes their first few seem less like solid musical statements and more like happy accidents. While There is No Love in Fluorescent Light isn’t much of an improvement over their last few records, it does have enough flashes of brilliance to prove there’s still a good band beneath the layers of synth and lacklustre lyrics that make up the album’s 12 tracks.
If the album has a theme, it’s a well trodden one. Most of the tracks on There is No Love deal with a distinctly teenaged flavour of love, from the first blush of attraction to the painful separation that stings like the first time. “Privilege” opens the record with the latter, as vocalist Amy Millan takes on a second person approach to unfulfilled expectations: “Never got what you want / You forgot what you want.” The song, like many others on the record, is pretty but flat, featuring cheesy background vocals and a precious delivery that gets old fast. “Fluorescent Light” isn’t much better, clearly meant as a radio single without doing much to distinguish itself from the host of other indie rockers dominating independent airwaves. It feels as old as the band does, throwing back to a 2004 more fondly remembered than realistically reflected upon.
“Losing to You” and “Hope Avenue” continue the record’s underwhelming first half, the former being two minutes longer than it ought to be while the latter copies the formula of so many other songs on the album: verse chorus verse chorus bridge louder crescendoing chorus. It’s predictable and lifeless, underselling a band with plenty of talent and no idea how to use it. “Alone” is musical wallpaper, as vocalist Torquil Campbell channels Bruce Springsteen longing for escape from a two horse town. It’s a universal sentiment, but through Stars’ predictably maudlin delivery it feels immature and underdeveloped.
“We Called It Love” is the first bright spot on the record, slowing things down with a slide guitar and string section that brings something new into the mix. The call and response vocals play to the band’s strengths, as Campbell and Millan’s chemistry sells some pretty weak lyrics: “Cradle to grave I’ll be trailing you / I dreamt I broke your heart and the dream came true.” “Real Thing” is even better, bringing an energy and confidence that the album’s first half notably lacks. It’s a dance song that would be difficult to dance to, switching time signatures and musical styles on a dime.
Unfortunately, this bright spot on the record is followed by its nadir, “The Gift of Love,” a cheesy and poorly realised ballad that spotlights every weakness the band has: their childish lyrics, Campbell’s overly dramatic delivery, and their sleepy and unremarkable musicality. “On the Hills” brings things back on track, with an organic sound that relegates the synths that are so prevalent across the album to the background. “The Maze” is another strong effort, and easily the record’s strongest moment lyrically as Campbell matches a dreamy setting with a powerful chorus that never pretends to be anything more than a simple rock song. “California, I Love That Name” is a pleasant but forgettable ode to the golden state, while “Wanderers” feels mostly like a retread of moments on the record done better, or at least more interestingly.
There is No Love is about ten minutes too long and its songs average out to just above mediocre, but it’s saved by a handful of tracks that prove Stars are still an above average rock band with enough originality and charm to solidify their place as one of the stalwart Canadian bands of the early 2000s.
Words by Max James Hill