Combining Hurt With Some Fun Works for Ash on 'Islands'
Now that Ash are back to making albums, they made one where all the songs truly count.
18 May 2018
In 2015, rock trio Ash recanted their promise to never release any more full-length albums with the arrival of the very solid Kablammo! In an interview with the band's frontman Tim Wheeler, I was surprised to learn that more than half of the album was written in what he referred to as "speed-writing sessions", where a songwriter tries to write as many songs as he or she can in a 12-hour stretch. Heeding the old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", Wheeler revisited the regimen when writing songs for Ash's album Islands. Islands is every bit as consistent as Kablammo!, though it is a just a tad less fun in spots. This is, after all, a breakup album.
"No such thing as a true story," warns Wheeler on the album's leadoff track, bearing all the hallmarks of a power pop nugget including a brisk tempo, bright guitars, and a chorus that will nag you for weeks. The verses of the peppy dance number "Confessions in the Pool" sound initially hopeful as Wheeler doles out some gratitude to a host who is relieving him of his worries. But when your chorus comes with a line like "what could we have done to deserve this misery," things will get complicated, Miami poolside be damned. That's just the tip of the heartbreak iceberg for Wheeler. The arena-rocker-in-waiting "All That I Have Left" comes with the especially dispiriting lyric of receiving "junk letters in your name".
"Don't Need Your Love", the album's slow dance/lighter waving moment, is about as somber as you might expect as Wheeler tries to reassure himself that the feelings in the breakup are mutual. Roughest of all is "Did Your Love Burn Out?", an example of Wheeler's ability to weld a ballad to a stomper. Singing and playing the guitar at the beginning, he throws out rhetorical questions like "what came of the flame / That we couldn't tame?" By the time bassist Mark Hamilton and drummer Rick McMurray come crashing in, were's in classic rock territory, and Wheeler no long feels like crooning: "You walked with all your secrets / I've been entangled in your thorns."
But Ash know better than to let Wheeler's recent breakup set the tone for the entire album. They make plenty of room for fun, like on the quick punk scorcher "Buzzkill". "I had your shit all lined up / Then you fucking showed up / Buzzkill!" That's clearly the work of someone who just wants to have a little fun, albeit a perverse kind. "Somersault" is more refined form of the kind of power pop Ash were close to perfecting on their early albums Trailer and 1977. "Silver Suit" is debatably the album's highlight. Chiming guitars alternate between a major chord and its relative minor as perfectly harmonized falsetto "ooh"s dangle over the mix. "Now the sun is rising / Our path leads over the horizon." It could be about hanging out on the beach or strutting around New York City. Either way, it's pretty great.
The album's closer "Incoming Waves" is a reminder that Ash is on an never-ending path to mature their sound. The music is moody and atmospheric, the lyrics an attempt to compromise regret over the past with hope for the future. Listening to Islands, I find myself wondering why Ash haven't surpassed certain peers like Weezer and Green Day. Then I remind myself that Ash had to crawl their way out of Downpatrick, Ireland first, and not California. And by that yardstick, they've done more than pretty well for themselves. Islands gives them that extra leap forward.