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“When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” So urges the distorted elderly voice that ushers in the song, “My Ex-Lover is Dead,” by the Montreal band Stars. “My Ex-Lover is Dead” happens to be the first track on the recently released album, Set Yourself on Fire, which has been garnering Arcade Fire comparisons and should assure big winnings on my bet that the next big hype in modern rock will be the Canadian Indie Invasion.

In retrospect, having listened to Set Yourself on Fire a few times now, I wish I wouldn’t have made that bet. “My Ex-Lover is Dead” is better left off The O.C., car commercials, K-ROQ, even the soundtrack to Zach Braff’s next film. The song needs to be protected by more than copyright laws, kept safely in comforting places like my car stereo last night as I was driving home from work. Bands like Stars and the Arcade Fire don’t “sell out.” Instead, record companies, advertising agencies, promoters, journalists, and like are more than happy to sell them in ways you never thought they could be sold. Call me naïve, but “My Ex-Lover is Dead” is not a product; it’s a song, a work of art, an outlet of personal expression. I can’t market it to you, and you certainly can’t take my word that it’s an amazing song without experiencing it in your own way. All I can do is recommend, in long-winded detail, reasons why I am fortunate to have heard this song about two dozen times since yesterday.

So now I find myself back at the beginning, with nothing left to burn. Might as well set myself on fire. While the heartsick confessional lyrics are ultimately what pull me into “My Ex-Lover is Dead,” the song also boasts an amazing diversity in musical instruments, utilizing a sound I can only describe as “classical,” beginning with this overbearingly sad, foreshadowing orchestration intro. Piano, strings, oboes, flutes, symphony, the band lays it on thick with used tissues, doused with the agony of grief. Which, if you think about the title of the song, is not surprising but fitting.

But after a slight quiet cello/harmonica interlude, the song shifts gears on you and starts soaring, higher than you ever thought a song about a dead lover should soar, because the song is not really about a dead lover but one who is very much alive, unrequited, and, as much as you try to forget him/her, still willingly haunting recent memory (side note: why do people refer people they merely sleep with as a “lover”? They don’t refer to the act as “making love,” so why is it “lover” used when describing insignificant flings or sex-based extra-marital affairs? Why can’t they call it a “sexer” and leave the “love” in lover alone? I could go into this further, but for now I’m happy to blame Stevie Wonder and his “Part-Time Lover.” But then, you know, Stevie really wanted his part-time lover to be full-time, with benefits, because the last line of the song is, “It’s really you my part-time lover.” In the same way, I think the lover in “My Ex-Lover is Dead” is also “the one.”)

With the orchestration element weeping, the rock music dripping in pop catchy hopefulness, the lyrics confess, unfiltered. “God, that was strange to see you again,” a subdued, oddly familiar male voice plainly states as the song first kicks in, the guitars sprinkled with xylophone, an instrument I haven’t heard used effectively since the last time I heard “Thunder Road” live. After his confession comes to a close, you’re transported back into another cello/harmonica interlude, but not for long, because this time an unexpected, crystal clear female voice catches you so off-guard, you wonder if she is the ex-lover in question.

It is at the precise moment her voice hits your eardrums that you can’t turn back, because at this point it’s gotten so intense, in her voice and choice of words, that you need to hear it out. Her confession digs deeper, its urgency never really abating, even when the male voice joins her in an anti-duet merge. Together they’re one voice reflecting fondly on a tragic human disconnection, thankful that they had the connection in the first place. Normally over-the-top lyrics such as, “I’ll write you a postcard, I’ll send you the news, from a house down the road from real love,” sound perfectly at home with the orchestration, which is, in itself, over-the-top, in a way that, for lack of better descriptor, “gets me.”

Before it’s over—and you don’t want it to end—your guides pause to remind all like-minded ex-lovers, “Live through this, and you won’t look back,” during the final orchestral interlude. It’s a public service announcement that I don’t want to obey. If the songwriters are living through the ex-lover pain, they’re already pushing it into the past with retrospect’s wisdom. In my experience, you don’t live through something amazing like love or something tragic like death, you live with it. Because if there’s nothing left to burn…


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