Islands, long known for their idiosyncratic, psychadelic indie-rock, have returned with a low-key album less about free-associative lyrics and more about one of the most relatable things in life — heartbreak. Heartbreak albums can typically be either brilliantly heartrending (like Blood on the Tracks) or they can be wallowing and self-indulgent (808s & Heartbreak). For Islands, thankfully, A Sleep and A Forgetting is largely neither: it’s just very good.
Rising from the ashes of frontman Nick Thorburn’s first band, The Unicorns, Islands officially launched in 2006 with Return to the Sea, which was a little more in keeping with the spirit of The Unicorn’s playfulness, if blown up to a larger scale. Horns, synths, and Thorburn’s tremulous voice collided with a variety of sounds from across the globe. There were also rap verses. Their next album, Arm’s Way, dispelled with the guest appearances from rappers but kept the “anything goes” mentality, veering from the swooning strings of “The Arm” to the absurd fake-Calypso breakdown in the middle of “J’Aime Vous Voir Quitter”.
But Thorburn switched gears for the recording of Islands’ latest album, A Sleep & A Forgetting. “This album is far more personal than any I’ve made before,” he claims in a press release. “The sound is really my interpretation of soul music. I mean, I’m a white kid from Canada, so it’s gonna be very warped. But that’s where my head was at, that particular way of dealing with themes and heartbreak.”
Soul music’s influence on A Sleep is obvious. For starters, Thorburn has reigned in some of his more absurd lyrical tendencies (See “In a lifeless carcass / In a bad ass car crash”, from “The Arm” on Arm’s Way), resulting in an album where sentiment trumps abstract imagery. For example, though “Can’t Feel My Face” opens with typically Islands-esque distorted keyboards, the opening line “I miss my wife / I miss my best friend” is as nakedly emotional as Thorburn’s writing gets.
“This is Not a Song” ties subdued Steve Cropper guitar with the band’s trademark stacked harmonies to lovely effect, but the shimmering organ that comes in after the first chorus is more Muscle Shoals than British Columbia. But despite the circumstances surrounding the album’s creation, it’s hardly a mopey record. “Hallways” bounces along on a one-two beat and some springtly piano — it’s as if Thorburn is unable to keep his peppier inclinations subdued for too long. Similarly, “Comes to Light” sounds reminiscent of some of the more jittery, start ‘n’ stop material on the group’s earlier albums, down to the lovely bloom of horns that pop in briefly at the end.
Simplicity is A Sleep‘s best value: A song like “Oh Maria” would have sounded completely out of place on one of Islands’ more overstuffed albums, but here, it’s par for the course — a quiet ballad about Buddy Holly’s young widow and her reoccurring dreams of the site where his plane went down, adorned with little other than some airy harmonies.
Hopefully, though, A Sleep and A Forgetting doesn’t herald a new direction for the band. Half of Islands’ appeal is Thorburn’s unhinged joy, and the sheer abandon with which he hurls element after element into his band’s sound, just because he can. That infectious, childlike zeal was so integral to the first part of their career that A Sleep is jarringly unfamiliar at first. That’s not to say it’s unwelcome — as I said before, much of its appeal does come from its simplicity. But I hope that it’s a one-off — a more subdued, less ebullient Islands is not something that indie-rock needs right now.