ICONIC '70s power-pop band Big Star is shrouded in the mythos of the short-lived, like Gordie Lachance's dead high-school-football-star big brother in Stand by Me. Portland's Little Star is like that movie's soft-spoken younger brother (played by Wil Wheaton), who carves out a place as an empathetic storyteller, even while the ghost of a larger-than-life idol looms in peripheral vision.
The sweet goth-punk debut full-length from Little Star, Being Close, turns a difficult breakup into a glorious Viking funeral. Traditional Viking funerals sent the dearly departed into the afterlife by sailing them out to sea in flames. This ritual cast the beloved into mysterious horizons, an open-ended goodbye. Being Close deals with a breakup as a similar kind of open, dignified farewell. Singer Daniel Byers set out with the goal of creating a respectful tribute to his former partner, the positive memories they shared, and their futures apart.
"Relationships are more fluid than we realize," Byers says. "They might shift from romance to friendship, but they can't just disappear from the earth completely. Recognizing this is a way of keeping the memory alive and acknowledging that someone has a place in your life. It helps me feel better about change. Keeping a memory close, just in a different way."
Byers tactfully navigates his emotions and consciously avoids the vengeful, bitter tone of many breakup albums. "There's such a fine line between processing your emotions publicly and totally erasing the other person's voice and dignity," he says. On Being Close's title track, Byers sings, "It's hard to forget about being close/We were close, and now we're far." Instead of documenting his raw and compulsive reactions, he focuses on his attempts to create emotional distance and getting used to "being far" from someone he once loved.
This is soundtracked by Byers' breakdown of Robert Smith-inspired guitar twang and Julian Morris' sinister basslines, supported by John Value's simple but solid percussive backbone. Two songs on Being Close, "Voice" and "Hungry Ghost," were written by Morris. Where Byers' songs simmer, Morris' boil over. These songs are lyrically biting in the most satisfying sense, with phrases like "I cracked my jaw on somebody else's truths."
Byers, meanwhile, strives to represent his emotions in a manner both relatable and accurate, requiring self-editing and countless drafts. "I want to be respectful to myself, to honor what I'm feeling," he says, "What's the point of releasing something that I only felt in a split second? It's better to get a more balanced and rounded picture of what you're feeling, and to do that you have to process it a little bit. I'm not saying I'm good at it, but it's a goal. It's something I want to be good at."
This self-editing is in part inspired by one of Byers' favorite poets, Portland literary icon William Stafford, who used drafts as a method of getting to the core of his own experience. "You can see his process and how he wanted to respect what really happened," Byers says. "That's where I got the idea three or four years ago that I really wanted to do that with my music. To represent a situation as best I can through editing."
These revisions create a rich mix of simple and emotionally complex lyrics; Byers' great strength in his songwriting is his ability to integrate them seamlessly in a way that's intensely relatable. On "Ollie," narratives of sweet memories like "Stay up late, talk on dirty floors/Drive around and listen to 'Moonage Daydream'" are contrasted against melancholy phrases like "We don't talk like we used to." Taken together, these become painfully, powerfully nostalgic.
The style of contrasting simple and grandiose declarations is common in the songs of Big Star's Alex Chilton. On "Thirteen" (from the band's seminal #1 Record), Chilton croons, "Won't you let me walk you home from school?/Won't you let me meet you at the pool?" and in the same breath, "Would you be an outlaw for my love?" Byers says both Chilton and the Cure's Robert Smith are huge inspirations, explaining that though his own music is notably less dramatic, he's drawn to these almost mythical personalities through their relatable lyrics.
"I think I'm very social," Byers says. "I'm reading Virginia Woolf's The Waves and there's this character Bernard, who just lives for talking to people. He gets all his energy from 'bouncing his phrases,' as he calls it. When he's alone, he's formless—talking to people is where he comes alive. When I listen to Alex Chilton or Robert Smith, they have this social aspect to their songs where I get that same kind of energy. I feel like they're talking to me."
That emotional vulnerability and empathy is what will draw people into the warm world of Little Star. "Maybe sweetness and tenderness as a goal are a big part of who I am," Byers says. "I want to take care of people." As Chilton sings on "Thirteen": "Rock 'n' roll is here to stay/Come inside where it's okay."