Islands: Should I Remain Here at Sea / Taste
Islands’ latest two records are a liberated, iconoclastic take on a dual set of genres. Some of Nick Thorburn's clearest and most relaxed work, the albums serve as an extended meditation on the idea that music is simply a matter of taste.
Label: Manque Music
US Release Date: 2016-05-13
UK Release Date: 2016-05-13
As someone who was exposed to his work post-Unicorns, I've always appreciated Nick Thorburn as an earnest and un-precious artist. His participation in soundtracking the podcast Serial last year cemented his position as a man of the people, and this latest pair of albums should bear along that seal. Both releases, Taste and Should I Remain Here at Sea, are both refreshingly transparent documents.
The two albums, both supported by a pre-order campaign via PledgeMusic, are separate records simultaneously released, and they bear different but related sounds. The first, Should I Remain Here at Sea, is an up-front, no-frills, pop/rock record with live instrumentation. Taste is an electropop record full of drum and synth sequencing and Auto-tuned vocals. Speaking on the experience as a whole, Thorburn said that he doesn't think he's “ever walked away from a recording process more fulfilled and invigorated." For the listener, they offer an only-slightly-off-kilter take on a range of old sounds that just might make them feel new again for you.
Should I Remain Here at Sea
Why make records? Is it to have something to play live, or is it to promote a particular statement? Nick Thorburn seems categorically disinterested in burdening himself with those sorts of questions. As such, the point of Should I Remain Here at Sea, a rollicking set of unassuming pop tracks veering happily in the direction of bubble-gum (as on track one single “Back into It"), is willingly undefined, besides the idea that songs having been written should be recorded.
Every song, since it was performed mostly or fully live, can be immediately imagined in live context. The arrangements are a combination of restraint—in the denying of tedious overdubs—and looseness, the non-quantized verses routinely transmitting a palpable sense of real performance. But far from feeling stripped down and intentionally analog as a statement, the sound remains as polished as any other Islands release, like if Deerhunter had recorded Monomania in full stereo.
The result is a distinct mellowing, both on the more melancholy ballads and on the peppier arrangements. The songwriting, at either pole, is often tongue-in-cheek but manages to steer clear of camp—too defined an aesthetic would be anathema to Islands' inclusive and reliable sound. That iconoclastic mission may have inspired the lyrics on “Christmas Tree”: “I’m the only one who is free.” The slow denouement, “Hawaii” and “At Sea”, seal the record off in this space. “Pushed out into the ocean, I feel the stillness hanging in the air,” he sings in the closing bars of “At Sea".
On Taste, Thorburn goes after a different sense of freedom. Shifting in process and aesthetic, he drifts back in touch with his alter-ego “Nick Diamonds”, the hard-working studio buff with a taste for the many strains of sensual electro-pop, and the moniker under which Thorburn put out a record last year.
Despite a change in instrumentation and a palpable “lock” imposed on all of the sequenced bar-lines, he manages to maintain the sense of immediacy and ease. Songs like “Snowflake”, while more carefully managed and built around a sequenced drum kit, build from verse to verse and smack of Killers-esque efficiency. It’s just as easy to imagine in a live context as dance-indebted pop-rock song “Back Into It” on Should I Remain Here at Sea, and yet the live context is allowed to be bigger.
Other tracks, like “Cool Intentions” or “Umbrellas”, follow that same big power-pop current. With humor and charm, Islands thread so many great sounds together: Phoenix’s european electro-pop, later Vampire Weekend minimal pop—stuff that is jacked up by the economy of its arrangements, quality of hooks, and clever use of electronics.
The main difference between the two records, besides the obvious difference in instrumentation, is one of scale. That Thorburn proves he can so freely move from carefree to considered, curated to crafted, unmediated to bounded—while maintaining his voice—is an impressive demonstration of studio command.
Having taken on the albums in this order, I don’t know what it would be like to go in reverse, to experience a loosening, as opposed to cinching, of the belt. It’s hard not to consider the more detailed Taste to be a bigger achievement, and it’s nice to see such writing talent and experience entering a more broad pop space. But perhaps taking on Should I Remain Here at Sea second might provide confirmation of the equally important takeaway: music is simply a matter of taste.