Throughout the show, Nick Diamonds periodically made the grand promise of taking the whole audience out afterwards for “milk and cookies”. It was a result of his compelling, larger-than-life persona that the guy in front of us believed him enough to shout out an open invitation to gather at his apartment. The whole time we half suspected Diamonds’s enthusiasm was all an act, a make-nice with the New York crowd in the weeks after his debut was released. The Kaufman trick not so much, but the band did then (in)famously lead us around the block in the pouring rain, blowing out a Pied Piper recorder melody as the rain came down.
That ragged, not-sure-if-it’s-all-an-act attitude pervades Islands’ album Return to the Sea; in fact, pervades most of Nick Diamonds’s work. You know—“We’re the Unicorns / And we’re people too”. I was a bit worried, as others have been, that Diamonds was doomed to waltz through life one seminal debut at a time, creating these almost perfect, quirky indie rock albums with different bands, then breaking up just when things were getting interesting. But Return to the Sea feels much more like a debut than a complete vision—loose ends of ideas are thrown into songs or tacked on at the end: a lilting piano ballad springs, hidden-track-like, out of a far-off thunderclap and the sound of steady rain; alt-rap busts out of a lush rock background. But still the album emerges from it all as, if not totally cohesive, at times quietly revelatory.
That pseudo-rap song, or rather, indie amateur rap, is “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone”. Everyone seems to be going crazy about it, but apart from the quality (it’s a good, not great, song), it doesn’t belong on Return to The Sea. If Th’ Corn Gangg ever released an album, maybe. But since whimsy is such a cornerstone of Nick Diamonds’s creativity, when Busdriver’s thin, over-enunciated rap pops up mid-album, it’s hardly that much of a surprise.
The lyrics to Islands’ songs follow this veiled pattern, too. If on “Swans (Life After Death)”, ND is singing about Jonah and the whale, you wouldn’t know it from all the talk of swans and frogs and rivers (somewhere about halfway through the song’s compelling nine minutes’ length, there’s a lyric about climbing in the blowhole, looking out the wide mouth at the sea and sky). Whether he’s being elliptical or tongue-in-cheek when he sings “If you ain’t sweet to me, I’ll desert you in a heartbeat / If you don’t savour me, I’ll salt you make you savoury”, I have no idea, but it is a highlight of the song “If”, with its simultaneous vulnerability and threat.
What is surprising is the consistent quality of the songwriting. Musically, Islands sound like a cross between the Unicorns and the Arcade Fire (with a bit of Architecture in Helsinki’s eclecticism thrown in, as on the addictive standout “Rough Gem”). True, the band’s flirtations with country and calypso aren’t always successful, but when “Humans” drops its “There There” skeletons-in-the-closet guitar jangle, and this drawled brass tune emerges in glorious sludge, it’s a great musical moment. The music also manages to convey a remarkably light texture, perhaps a function of the pizzicato accents in the violins that tinkle over “Humans”, “Rough Gem”, or Diamonds’s vocal imitation of the same effect on “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby”. What keeps these tunes fresh is a willingness to deviate from expected melodic structures: on “Swans” the melody, which is veiled to begin with, subtly twists and shades each time it comes back, instead of repeating straight.
I guess the real constant on Return to the Sea is this determination to rip whatever barrier there is between the performer and the audience to shreds—to win us over by quirky goodwill. By the end of the album it’s become more than obvious—“Bucky Little Wing” is full of nostalgia and regret at aborted friendship, and at the end of “Jogging Gorgeous Summer”, when Diamonds croons “Millions of sunsets, but the one I’ll remember / Is the one where you told me you’d love me forever”. He could just as easily be singing about his audience as a lover, but as long as Islands keep treating us to impromptu rain-dance jams and these complex, appealing songs, we’ll continue to respond more than positively.