Tonight before dinner, I happened to put on the sublimely beautiful album Set Yourself on Fire (2004), by Stars. The opening notes have always struck me as a little ... off. A gravelly voice intones, "When you have nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire." Wow. That's pretty intense. What kind of full-frontal musical assault is the answer to that?
Well, in Stars' world, full-frontal musical assaults just aren't the done thing. Think strings, piano, soft horns. Watch the video to hear for yourself.
Then, after dinner, I happened to put on Megadeth's relentless 1988 album So Far, So Good ... So What! And then it hit me. All of a sudden, I realized why the string/piano/soft horn intro always felt wrong. It's because Megadeth did a similar shtick 15 years earlier, and they did it right.
Folks, I don't care if you're writing about setting yourself on fire or setting the world on fire, but get it right:
Don't get me wrong: I think Stars are a fine band, and Set Yourself on Fire is a brilliant, beautiful, wonderful album. It's a perfect example of mid-2000s art pop. If you like thinking person's pop music, if you like melody and lyrics and talented musicians making it all look effortless, you should just go buy the album now. This is far and away the best album by Stars. You can't go wrong.
On the other hand, if you're more into full-frontal musical assaults, it's awfully hard to beat So Far, So Good... So What!. I'm only familar with Megadeth's first couple of albums (I lost interest after Rust in Peace), but this is the best of the early stuff. From start to finish, it does not let up. And it certainly doesn't drag: the whole album clocks in at just under 35 minutes. They don't waste a note. If you've ever wished a talented metal band would channel the raw energy and attitude of punk: it's been done, right here, and Megadeth did it better than anyone I can think of. They cover the Sex Pistols, they put you right in the shoes of a suicidal loser ("oh, how I lived my life for you / now, as I die, my flesh still crawls as I breathe your name"), and they utterly excoriate the risible censorship of the PMRC (in case you've never heard of them, it was an eighties thing).
That said, So Far is undeniably topical, political, and of its time. Maybe I like it so much because I was 16 or 17 when I first bought it, and it just stuck its hook in me. Maybe the kids today would find it dated. Set Yourself on Fire is timeless pop, and only the style and instrumentation give away its time and place (Montreal, 2004). The lyrics will be as relevant, and as poignant, in 20 years as they are today.
I love that two albums can be so utterly different, and yet both so great.