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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Stars": searching for an answer

I reflect on a song I had trouble finding which itself asks a question of its lyrical subject in light of infatuation.

Today's post starts with four measures and three chords: two measures of G9, then one of B7sus, and one of B7.

That may not mean a lot to some of you, particularly those of you without absolute pitch. Simply put (if you can call any of my writing simple), it's a distinctive progression with lots of jazz-like color that bridges the gap between two distant chords by way of a suspension. In this suspension, the fourth is played instead of the third, then satisfying resolves downward. It also gives the progression a greater sense of direction, with its final chord implying a resolution to E minor. (More on that feeling in a bit.)

This chord progression had been stuck in my head off and on for a while. I likely heard it in a playlist to which I was listening when I was very tired and dozed off at some point earlier in the semester. Since then, I had been searching to find out from which song it came. As is the case with most of my popular music endeavors, the 90s was the last place I looked, this time because I didn't expect to find it there; I was thinking it was either from the late 70s or late 80s. My late 80s inkling should have cued me in on the early 90s sooner, but it finally did, and that's when I found out the chords were the opening to Simply Red's "Stars."

Emerging from the musical hotbed of Manchester, Mick Hucknall's band Simply Red bore the standard for blue-eyed soul from the mid-80s through the mid-90s, leaving their mark on both sides of the Atlantic with songs like the heartfelt "Holding Back the Years." "Stars" is the second single and title track from Simply Red's fourth album, with which they achieved their greatest sales and status. It's a record I find intriguing beyond its first chords because of the narrative interaction between the lyrics and the chords, as well as the richness of various piano- and vocal-driven harmonies.

So, back to those rich opening chords we go. I mentioned that they imply a resolution to E minor... but instead of getting that, the next phrase starts with the same G9 chord. With G Major being the relative major of E minor, the chord change isn't too jarring, but it is indicative of the narrator's mood for the song. Opening with "Anyone who ever held you / Would tell you the way I'm feeling," Hucknall sweetly croons his praises for the object of his affection throughout the record, seemingly without a care for the rest of the world, and the bright, full G9 chord reflects that feeling well.

I also like how the progression for the bulk of the song is an expansion of what is heard in the introduction and after choruses. The G9 and the B7sus to B7 move are respectively condensed to one measure, with the two measures in between them comprising simpler functional harmonies (D/F# and Am) that remain fulfilling, but have a greater purpose of serving the journey between the other chords. This middle expansion is not something I can recall hearing in another pop record, and it's a very interesting approach on "Stars" given the chord relationship it emphasizes and the greater effect it has.

This larger effect hits its narrative peak in the chorus, during which three-part harmony ushers in the title statement: "I want to fall from the stars / Straight into your arms." Hucknall's narrator figure is in bliss from the attraction they feel, and the realization of it will gratefully bring them down to earth. The final line of the chorus is the most intriguing to me — as the suspension and resolution on E7 occurs, Hucknall sings, "I hope you comprehend," a line that indicates a disconnect in their interactions despite the physical proximity implied in the opening lines. The chords over which the words are sung further imply doubt in the narrator's mind, before the introductory progression returns. I'm unsure of what answer that brings, if any; it's something that continues to puzzle me about the song and has helped guide me toward this informative listen.

From an opening chord progression, I've derived a rather intriguing method of understanding "Stars." It isn't a process I expect to consistently follow, as it requires certain chord relationships for me to really latch onto it, but now I'm interested in seeing which other pieces may inspire this angle.

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