From Capelton Hill

Last Gang Records/MNRK

If you Google “Capelton Hill,” you won’t find much. Located in the rolling green foothills around North Hatley, Quebec, Capelton Hill is a place that somehow still exists outside the grasp of algorithms and internet surveillance. But even its inhabitants and those who know about it won’t know it forever; their times will end, and their knowledge of and relationship to Capelton Hill will end as well.

This includes the members of Canadian band Stars, whose connections to North Hatley trace back to when vocalist Torquil Campbell’s grandfather built homes in the area in the late 1800s. For bandmates Campbell, Amy Millan, Chris Seligman, Evan Cranley, Chris McCarron, and Patty McGee, Capelton Hill is a place where things don’t change. The impossibly vivid explosions of emotion we feel for these places, which seem like some cosmic, universal force, will disappear. The new record from Stars is about this place, the relationships formed there, the inevitable decay of it all, and the joy and life that happens in between. More than ever, From Capelton Hill feels like a direct channeling of Stars’ decades-long pursuit: “This band has always been us trying to navigate what it means to be inside a life that is going to end,” says Millan. “And we’re getting closer.”

“I guess what From Capelton Hill means to me is from memory, from the past, from a place that seems permanent but isn’t, and I think that that sense of impermanence is a big part of what’s in the record: realizing that things don’t last forever, and that even the things that I thought would be there forever aren’t going to be,” says Campbell. “Capelton Hill is a place where things in my mind, in my life, they’ve never changed. And yet it will go.”

These hard-won revelations aren’t solely the stuff of creeping dread; whether by nature or necessity, they’re also coloured on the record with a peaceful acceptance, like watching a world-ending tidal wave cresting and marveling at its magnitude. “What I love about the album,” Millan continues, “is that we’re chasing the truth of the matter rather than chasing a hook. We’re just telling the truth.”

Musically, the record feels like walking into Stars’ familiar teenage bedroom. Campbell says it cuts to the band’s “founding principles”: it’s brimming with gothic, dazzling ‘80s and ‘90s Britpop arrangements, but rendered with intimacy and warmth rather than with cold, digital remove. A wealth of horn and string arrangements unfold across the record in true Stars fashion, romantic and macabre. The fretwork and key strokes feel closer than ever before; Millan’s and Campbell’s vocals are tender and undressed, as if they cut all their takes together.

The music for From Capelton Hill was composed between Seligman and Cranley over the first half of 2020, and after a first attempt to assemble the record from afar with mixed results, the band convened in Montreal to record with Marcus Paquin and Jace Lasek at Studio MixArts, Lasek’s Breakglass Studio, and the band’s own space, Zoomer. McGee says that after months of trying to work remotely, once they gathered in a room together, everything clicked—first as friends, then as a working band.

“We’re a bunch of fuckin’ jokers that get together and play music together, and the emotional spirit of that keeps us going,” McGee says. “We always want to be an electronic band, and we always end up being a human band. Those two things always meet.”

Campbell agrees: the band’s greatest work isn’t their recorded output, but the relationships they’ve built with one another. “Just being together for 20 years is a piece of art in and of itself,” he says. 

From Capelton Hill begins with tiny dialogue from the 1964 film Seance On A Wet Afternoon: “Your guardian angel has put candles on both your knees; one on each knee.” Synths dance across a fading sunset sky before Campbell’s voice and McGee’s drums swell toward the chorus, buoyed by keys and guitar: “Tell me what the future will be/Take my hands and practice palmistry,” Campbell sings.

Lead single “Pretenders” follows, a triumphant, romantic, Thelma and Louise-level commitment to seeing things through, even as the walls close in: “We laid our bets, we made our beds on staying young forever,” Millan and Campbell sing in harmony on the soaring indie-anthem chorus. Millan wrote the song’s lyrics as a “love letter” to Campbell and her memories of the band’s origins. “When we wrote all those songs 20 years ago, we were young,” says Millan. “That’s what being in a band is: you’re putting down your chips on feeling young and being young. It doesn’t necessarily work out because time does its thing.”

“Obviously, we lost that bet,” says Campbell. “But we are young in the moment of singing it. That’s the incredible thing about music: you are young in the moment of singing that line, even if you’re 80.”

Elsewhere, “That Girl” is a gentle synth lament, with Millan mourning the person she was, which time has taken from her. “My body is changing so much, your face changes with age, the people that I look at across the stage from me look different,” says Millan. “There’s already something you’ve lost just in time passing.”

The record closes on the tender, acoustic “Snowy Owl,” with Millan and Campbell swapping verses and twinning each other on the choruses. It might be the final chapter in the long, winding book that the two have been writing for decades, about two characters that continue to try to be together but keep destroying one another. Campbell says the song is the epilogue to their stories. “I don’t know what comes after,” he says. “I just make records about other people and in the end, they turn out to be about me.”

From Capelton Hill is about a group of people who have spent more than 20 years together, and who have now started to face the awful, necessary calculus each human eventually must do: when will all of this end? The lyrics of “Capelton Hill,” in its bittersweet, end-of-season farewell to the ramshackle house in North Hatley, offer a useful equation: “Close up the house for one more year, wave to the lake and drive away/That feeling in your chest, it isn’t fear, it’s just the passing of the day."