Way To Be Loved is the opening track on Picture You Staring, the second LP from Montreal’s TOPS. The song is a perfect introduction and will likely be the song that draws people to the album and band in general. It has a percussive, intriguing vibe from its first few seconds. Its groove is retro, but not rooted enough in any particular era to qualify it as a throwback. It would, for example, fit comfortably on a playlist alongside modern bands who deal in ’80s textures. However, it so tastefully and delicately avoids the bombast typical of that era that it would also fit snugly on a mix CD of your favorite twee-pop bands. It is an impressive tune, and sets the bar high for the rest of the record.
Way To Be Loved also establishes the album’s overall tone. Picture You Staring is significantly less cute than 2012’s Tender Opposites, and is instead characterized by a slightly sexual and knowing sense of maturity. Way To Be Loved sounds light, but its lyrics are heavy, calling into question a relationship where a sinister apathy has taken the place of passion. It ends suddenly, with a stop-you-in-your-tracks direct address to its subject: “Is that the way that you are/Wear your hair down alone/Tie it up when he’s there/And tell me that nothing’s wrong.”

Luckily, Picture You Staring does deliver on the promise of its lead single. Its uptempo second track, the searching Blind Faze, continues the momentum, as does Circle The Dark, which finds the band channeling the Police on the verses before giving way to a spacious chorus where singer Jane Penny’s falsetto really shines. Outside, another of the album’s previously heard singles, slows things down with electronic drums and warm synth beds, and its chorus is one of the album’s most memorable. Outside also makes clear just how much Penny has come into her own as a vocalist since the release of Tender Opposites. Her voice sounds shy but never hesitant, painting her as a wordly, all-observant outsider.
Another stand-out here is the sugary Change Of Heart, which commits to the ’80s textures the album sometimes dances with the most wholeheartedly. Its intro sounds like the kick-off to the title sequence of a John Hughes move (an aesthetic adeptly replicated in the song’s tour footage music video). Penny spends the entire song at the whispery top of her register, and the result is a song that is simultaneously beautifully sad and a total jam.
Picture You Staring rounds out with one of its finest moments. Destination is stripped entirely of drums and guitars, and what remains is a chilling synth ballad. Penny leaves us with a persistent, simple refrain: “You didn’t have to go/You didn’t have to go away.” This song is the album’s most emotionally bare moment, and by choosing to close the album with it, the band highlights the emotional ambiguity that permeates the record. From its first notes, it’s never clear if this album is a meditation or a celebration, and it doesn’t seem like the folks in TOPS want us to know for sure.