If there was a word to describe my listening habits over the past few months, it would probably have to be “rediscovery.” This year has found me revisiting several artists and genres that I had once swooned over back in the day, but for one reason or another, had moved past in search of newer things. Some artists, such as Unwed Sailor, have released new albums that caught my ear once again. And some artists, such as For Stars, have released albums that I’m only now discovering and beginning to appreciate.
For Stars have, or had, about everything you could ever want from a pop act. Things such as sterling melodies that aim, missile-like, right for that part of the subconscious containing memories of longlost summers and those high school crushes that never quite worked out; melodies that manage to drip with sentimentality without ever becoming mawkish; and best of all, Carlos Forster’s wistful, heartbreaking voice (which at times resembles a male version of The Innocence Mission’s Karen Peris).
For Stars used all of these to great effect, recording two albums of indie-pop at its finest and sweetest; 1998’s For Stars and 1999’s Windows For Stars. Some people might dredge up the Death Cab For Cutie comparison, but I personally find such a comparison falls way short of the mark. On these two albums, the band created their own little insular musical world, full of melancholy and wistfulness, with just the slightest bit of darkness menacing the edges and keeping things from becoming too cloying.
For Stars stumbled a bit with their third album, 2001’s We Are All Beautiful People. The album seemed to minimize everything that made For Stars’ music so good, sacrificing the bittersweet delicateness for something a little heavier and, for lack of a better term, rock-oriented.
At first glance, It Falls Apart lands squarely between the ephemeral pop of their earlier efforts and the heavier sound of We Are All Beautiful People. But then you realize that, even as it lands between the two varying sounds, it makes a sudden twist and shoots out somewhere into leftfield.
Even as the band seems to settle comfortably into the soft, drifty sounds that characterized their first two albums, they experiment with harsh bursts of noise and ragged bits of guitar, while Forster has rarely sounded so haggard. And contrary to a more direct, rock n’ roll flavor, the band spends drowns nearly a quarter of the album’s length into a single song — the expansive “If It Falls Apart” — which veers from explosive, distorted guitars and wailing vocals to field recordings, sparse piano lines, reverbed vocals, and other bits of cavernous atmospherica.
It’s not surprising that an album about the dissolution of love should also be a deconstruction of the band’s sound. As such, it’s alternately fascinating and frustrating, and right back to fascinating yet again. Few of the songs pack the emotional punch of earlier numbers such as “Lot Like Me” (possibly the gentlest song about teen angst ever recorded), “Sorry,” and “The Kissing Scene.” “Calm Down Baby” comes closest, as Forster confesses “And I don’t really understand/All the reasons I can’t be your man/And it’s like I’m sinking in the sand/Friends again….”
I can’t seem to find any evidence of For Stars’ continued existence, but It Falls Apart certainly has a “swansong” feel to it. Throughout the record, there’s this troubling undercurrent — which peeks through on the more abstract moments of the disc, such as the achingly threadbare “In The End” — that hints at the band being in the midst of some sort of nervous breakdown even while trying to commit such beautiful sounds as Forster’s careening voice to tape.
On a sidenote, a number of reviews It Falls Apart have thrown out comparisons to Radiohead, Mercury Rev, even My Bloody Valentine — none of which make a lick of sense to me. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think a band should be doomed to comparison to Thom Yorke et al. just because they open their album with a blistering squall of noise, or feature a vocalist prone to a crooning falsetto, or engage in a few leftfield pop excursions. That’s not to say that It Falls Apart is a revelatory album without any weakness. Far from it. But I do think it’s far more interesting than most have seemed to give it credit for, even if it does fall somewhat short of the For Stars’ earlier, simpler, and more satisfying efforts.