'Your Ex-Lover is Dead' turns 15: exploring the brilliance behind Stars' biggest hit
The 2004 song is a timeless ode to broken hearts
Arcade Fire's Funeral, Feist's Let it Die and Star's Set Yourself on Fire — all of these records collided in a particular time and space; disrupters, in their own way, of the status quo of CanRock. The artists were young and anxious, obsessed with endings (in order to get to those new beginnings); their agitation and vulnerability manifesting in a real and varied range of emotions, over sonic landscapes that thrummed urgently, expansively, across myriad seasons.
These musicians — an avant-art assembly of innovators, activists and DIY enthusiasts — were part of a scene (mostly out of Montreal) and shared a melodic language; a pop spectrum that ran from chamber to twee and back again. They rejected the previous generation's lengthy hangover of '90s-era irony and abject indifference, in favour of narrative complexity and embracing all the feelings.
What positioned Stars so uniquely in 2004 is still true to this day: the band's brilliant decision to have two lead singers (Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan) and make the first track on their second album a devastating call-and-answer duet that ripped open the hearts of a whole new crop of music fans and critics, including CBC Music's own Andrea Warner and Melody Lau.
Ahead of Stars' 15-year anniversary performance of Set Yourself on Fire at the CBC Music Festival, Warner and Lau dig into "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead," the memorable anthem from their critically acclaimed album that launched the band to a new level of stardom thanks to significant placements on notable television shows. The conversation below also includes excerpts from exclusive interviews with Set Yourself on Fire's co-producer, Tom McFall, and former Stars touring member, and Young Galaxy co-founder, Steve Ramsay.
Melody: Andrea! Can you believe it's already been 15 years since "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" came out? It's strange to think about it because it's a song that both reflects a hyper-specific time and place — a burgeoning Montreal music scene that was on the cusp of breaking through to a worldwide audience — but at the same time, it's such a timeless song.
Andrea: I adore this song so much, and you're right about its timelessness. As soon as that deep, booming voice shakes the speaker with "Set yourself on fire!" I feel this warm glow of recognition, and I prepare myself for this onslaught of feelings.
Melody: It's become the very definition of a track that pulls on the heartstrings of a listener — a melody that so expertly plays to our emotions, which is, in many ways, the greatest strength of Stars. I personally came to "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" a few years late, but it entered my life around the time I experienced my first break-up and illuminated a brand new spectrum of feelings for me. It allowed me to understand the complexities of moving on and how distance can heal a lot, but perhaps not everything. I'm curious: what's the first thing you think about when you hear this song?
I think that's what hooked me before anything else even: the dialogue, the push and pull, the give and take, the desire to hurt someone before they can hurt you.- Andrea Warner
Andrea: I think about the lyricism of this song all the time. I think that's what hooked me before anything else even: the dialogue, the push and pull, the give and take, the desire to hurt someone before they can hurt you. "All that time that you thought I was sad/ I was trying to remember your name" still kills me to this day. It's such a typically male bravado response, burying one's vulnerability under this avalanche of indifference, not realizing you're crushing yourself, too.
Melody: It's interesting that you note the indifference because Tom McFall, the producer of "Your Ex-Lover is Dead," told me he loves the "emotional nonchalance" of this song, but that's just one of many layers here. Like you said, there's a crushing sadness underneath what he is saying. There's awkwardness in the happenstance of running into a former lover. There's a feeling of loss, of losing that familiarity with someone you once knew intimately. And, ultimately, acceptance in knowing "there's nothing to save." The multidimensionality of this song is important. Many songs struggle to just get one sentiment right, yet "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" encapsulates a lot more than that and nails it in an incredibly satisfying way.
Andrea: It's a very cinematic song, too, and I remember being so excited when it started to show up on TV and in the movies. Like when they were on The O.C. in 2005!
Melody: The O.C. was a big deal! At the time, the show was a huge taste-maker for fashion and music. It was the show that practically made Death Cab for Cutie a household name. (Thank you, Seth Cohen. I still have a crush on you.) And as someone who roots for Canadian music, I was really exciting to see "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" on The O.C.
Andrea: Can we also talk about the brutal edits the producers or choreographers did to the song to make it work for So You Think You Can Dance in season 6?
Melody: That song makes zero sense in the So You Think You Can Dance edit! I understand they had to edit it for the length of the performance, but it sounds very jarring and the lyrics don't line up. Alas, television can distort songs like that. At least choreographer Travis Wall applies the concept of the song to the dance routine pretty well. Chopped-up song aside, it is a nice visual representation of the song. Wall's work is often very emotionally driven, and a song like this perfectly suits his style.
Andrea: It is a beautiful dance, you're right. I'm just mad at the edits.
Melody: So, this song definitely found a fit in TV and film, but I also want to talk about how it fit into the Canadian music scene at large. While the inclination might be to look at Stars' closest friends in Broken Social Scene and Metric, I talked to Young Galaxy's Steve Ramsay about it — he got his start touring with Stars during their Set Yourself on Fire days — and he makes a really good case for Arcade Fire's Funeral being its most direct kinship. Ramsay describes the two as "second cousins" because they were both born from the collaborative nature of the Montreal community.
"Back then, everyone knew someone who had a space or knew someone who ran a studio," Ramsay said. "Funeral was made in a mix of lost apartments and studios with a whole bunch of people patched together and, to a degree, Stars had that happen as well."
In fact, Arcade Fire's Marika Shaw even plays on Set Yourself on Fire! So Stars was definitely an integral part of the Montreal scene that later blew up in 2005 when Arcade Fire ended up on the cover of Time Magazine. But there's still something about "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" that strikes me as this singular piece that stood out from the rest.
Andrea: I feel like it's the story in the song, and how many layers there are. It's funny and it's sad and it's beautifully poetic, but also one really valid reading of this whole song is about Amy's character having left a very bad situation. She's grown beyond the circumstances of this relationship, and she's forced to engage again with Torquil's character's toxic masculinity and his inability to access his emotions. These are complicated dynamics that we're just barely talking about openly now in 2019, and Stars put it in a song in 2004 and made it seem like the greatest, saddest love story ever told, when in fact it was probably about ending a very bad relationship, the kind that you learn to identify as abusive only after you've done the hard work of leaving.
Melody: It's got the grandeur of a story that can only be told in retrospect. But also, it has a wonderful sense of tragic humour that lies in a setting like this. I can't imagine being as eloquent and succinct in a moment like that, but Amy's character is what I strive to be. To be able to harness your energy to retort Torquil's "trying to remember your name" line with, "Now you're outside me, you see all the beauty/ repent all your sin" is just as biting but more insightful.
Andrea: There are so many lines that I hear differently now the way I heard them back then, when I thought there was something tragic and stoic about suffering in the name of "love." Amy's character's first line is, "This scar is a fleck on my porcelain skin." When she carries the listener into the chorus, Torquil's voice supporting hers, it's Amy's character who's singing, "I chose to feel it and you couldn't choose," reminding us again the limits of his emotional intelligence. She will send him the news "from a house down the road, from real love." The comma isn't in the lyrics separating "road" and "real love," but I've always heard it sung that way — a decisive comma that shows she was able to forge a meaningful and healthy relationship, despite what she'd known with him.
It's a very bittersweet moment that's hard to articulate in a way that doesn't feel like you've got bigger things to say; said in a small way, it comes across in a very big way.- Former Stars touring member, Steve Ramsay
Melody: I think former touring member Ramsay summed up the effectiveness of the song in a really great way. He told me: "It's a very bittersweet moment that's hard to articulate in a way that doesn't feel like you've got to say bigger things; said in a small way, it comes across in a very big way." It's the juxtaposition of the big emotions and the small scenario that makes it ultimately so personal yet so universal.
Andrea: Totally agree. In part, it's the swell of the violin and the accordion, but it's also the way Amy and Torquil's voices meld, like two people reaching for each other's hands in the dark, fingers twining together. And there's something so heartbreakingly real in the repair of the final verse, both musically and lyrically. Amy's ability to identify her desire for closure as "brave" is significant, as is her decision to retroactively afford herself some agency in their relationship. "You were what I wanted," she admits, before stating, factually, "I'm not sorry I met you/ I'm not sorry it's over/ I'm not sorry there's nothing to save." Of course she's still doing all the work in this situation. Of course she is.
Melody: McFall said that one of the last parts added to "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" were the strings and brass instruments and he remembered that was when "the whole thing suddenly came massively to life." And it's true — those strings transform the song into the beautiful waltz it is today and inform the dancing dialogue between Amy and Torquil.
Andrea: Oh, I'm so glad they made that decision. Particularly for the song's final 30 seconds. After the break when the music falls out, and the space they make for the repetition of "I'm not sorry there's nothing to save" — it's a relief to have that instrumentation whirl in and whisk us away. We can absorb the sting of everything that just went down, or we can revel in the triumph of leaving, or we can reel from this epic and final goodbye. Some days it's a combination of all three things at once, isn't it?
Melody: It truly is the beauty of this song, and the beauty of hindsight. I can look back at "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" and laugh or cry, feel angry or uplifted. It's a song that means different things for different people, and can continue to unravel new layers over time. Sure, we can argue whether or not this is Stars' best song ever (I can nominate many others for that title), but I think we can both agree that the keys to Stars' success can all be found on this one perfect track. Torquil once said that this song no longer belongs to them. "We let the audience sing it; it's your song," he told Live in Limbo. So I feel like we ultimately want to just thank the band for this gift.