[25 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s been six years since Joel Thibodeau gave us a Death Vessel record, the subtly versatile folk of 2008’s Nothing Is Precious Enough For Us. That record let its brightness shine through, and Thibodeau’s voice seemed to be part of that. There’s something almost angelic and certainly arresting about his voice, it has a sweetness to it that seems to melt his words at the edges. And yet, there’s something haunting hiding under all that honey. Thibodeau’s voice lures you in with charm but keeps you there with a long, haunting shadow.
The new record, Island Intervals, flips the order of those elements around. Despite the seemingly sunny title, Thibodeau’s new set is much more up front in its explorations of darker, more troubling textures. He recorded the album in Iceland, with help from Sigur Rós singer Jónsi and that band’s producer Alex Somers. So you might expect some change, and there’s more than a little of the chilly post-rock expanse we’ve heard from Jónsi. What’s interesting is the sound here is one Sigur Rós left behind a few records ago, although the flourishes here—especially early on in the record—suit Thibodeau’s songs. They don’t drown out the sweetness so much as they mute it with heavy banks of gray sound. On the best parts here, the shift works.
The key is letting more unhinged elements upset the fragile balance of Thibodeau’s songs. Nowhere does this happen to better effect than on opener “Ejecta”. The song is built on shambling, spaced-out percussion, a fitting dark base for a song that deals in, among other things, “subterranean rifts.” Pianos and keyboards ripple out low notes into space behind Thibodeau’s voice, which is high in the mix and echoed with effect-laden voices, swooping through the song like the “caged bird” he sings of might if he were free. The chorus notes “the water will actually fill the whole room”, and the inevitability of that end imbues the slow-paced song with a dark tension.
“Velvet Antlers” seems to shift to brighter tones with the plinking pianos at its opening, but then the bass rumbles through as the driving force to the song. That the bass guitar and toms are presented unadorned behind Thibodeau makes the song eerie before the atmospherics come in for the second half of the verses. The song shifts from the spare to the lush with solid effect. “Mercury Dime” feels like it is played by a series of toy instruments, and it has a childless bounce, but the faint use of dark synthesized sounds around this makes it more troubling and off-kilter than its sugary choruses might suggest.
These moments work because they play against expectation and pit unlike elements against each other with control and subtlety. The trouble on Island Intervals, though, is that it often struggles to strike that balance. “Isla Drown”, which features Jonsi on vocals, should be a lush centerpiece to this record, with countless layers and snapping snares circling around Thibodeau’s finger-picked guitar. Instead, their voices strike as too similar, two different brands of gossamer that don’t thicken when you lay them on top of each other but somehow get thinner. This is perhaps because the layers here don’t complicate the guitar at the center so much as they extend its pastoral notes too far, letting the song drift away where the better moments here would weight it down with heavier textures.
This lack of balance, where the light feels glaring, where the heft of the darkness seems to thin out, slows down the second half of the record. “Island Vapors” is the best of the bunch, taking a more muscled track than the other songs here, but it also presents a less subtle version of what “Velvet Antlers” does. “We Agreed” is full of high-register vocals, shimmering keys, and thundering drums, but the pieces don’ grind against each other but rather all try to stretch as far into the sky as they can.
Island Intervals starts with songs that pit the intimate and the epic against each other, that shift tempo, texture, and scope in fascinating ways. But that set of complications can’t sustain itself. It doesn’t help that the words themselves feel overworked, as on a song called “Triangulated Heart”, the “unbridled ideation” Thibodeau sings about on “Velvet Antlers”, or the way he squeezes “cuckoo” into a space that doesn’t fit on “Ejecta”. Forcing the words in these moments also highlights the moments where the music feels pushed too far, moving from a personal brightness to a glaring, unnatural sheen. The shift into the shadows works in parts for Thibodeau, but the album doesn’t want to linger in that dark so much as obliterate it with a light we’ve heard from him before. That would be all right, but here some of the songs get buried in the process.