A Sleep and a Forgetting, the last record from Islands, the Montreal indie-pop outfit headed by Nick Thorburn, was a mature, melodic, and heartfelt breakup album. It also was a bit of a left turn from the more whimsical, quirky material Islands was known for. Some fans and critics thought A Sleep and a Forgetting was, while accomplished, also a bit dull. Though its steady, clean production and relatively straightforward arrangements did sound grown-up, the focus provided by the subject matter, however traumatic, made for one of the best indie albums of 2012.
The good news for those who preferred a more freewheeling Thorburn is that Ski Mask does loosen things back up again, at least in part. But it doesn’t totally abandon the clearer sound and more pensive mood of its predecessor, either. Thus, Ski Mask, while a good distillation Islands’ various approaches, does not represent the best of any of them.
The album’s first half is full of the jaunty, almost cabaret-style pop that will be familiar to Thorburn fans. Lead single “Wave Forms” features a bobbing, playful bassline before the soaring, ultra-catchy chorus takes hold. “Death Drive” has a calliope, delivering you to a sinister yet strangely enjoyable fairground, while “Nil” is a shuffling two-step. The highlight of this section is “Becoming the Gunship”, a rockabilly-flavored, midtempo number that strongly recalls late-period Morrissey, yet one-ups Moz in terms of clever metaphors and anthemic, memorable choruses alike. There’s nothing as fun or frankly charming as, say, “Hallways” from A Sleep and a Forgetting, but there’s nothing much to complain about, either, and the return of goofy analog synths sounds adds an appreciably “proggy” feel.
Ski Mask runs into some trouble when it gets into its second half, which eventually becomes bogged down in soggy, nondescript ballads and slowies. “Hushed Tones”, built off percussive, staccato guitar feedback, is pretty and warm, but quickly wears out its welcome. And, while Thorburn may have more-or-less gotten divorce out of his system, Ski Mask finds him grappling not with emotional freedom but rather with death itself. “You said, ‘Life’s not a gas / It’s a gas chamber'”, goes one line from “We’ll Do It So You Don’t Have To”. The music crawls along, and despite the occasional up tic in tempo or key, the overall effect is oppressive and, more troublingly, nothing really grabs you musically or emotionally. Nothing, that is, except the admittedly gorgeous strummer “Here Here”.
Throughout, the production, again by Thorburn and bandmate Evan Gordon, is clean and uncluttered, even though most tracks clearly have multiple layers. Thorburn’s voice is good, as well, sounding defiant or delicate as need be. His sometimes-clipped phrasing is unique, and his songwriting still features key changes, twists, and turns that have now become expectedly unexpected. In short, Ski Mask is a solid Islands album, but it lacks the thematic and musical cohesion of Thorburn’s best work. If A Sleep and A Forgetting was a breakthrough of sorts, this is a bit of a retreat.