Review : Islands - A Sleep & a Forgetting
PitchforkWho is Nick Thorburn? Up to this point, it's been hard to tell. As figurehead for the six-years-strong Islands, he's been an artistic vagrant, switching from strummy, beached Graceland-isms, to avant-rap experiments, to overblown indie pomp, to squishy, Auto-Tuned synth-pop-- sometimes, within the same record. Side projects like Human Highway and Mister Heavenly have gone great lengths to mine his appreciation for the garage pop of the 1950s and 60s, but have revealed relatively little; last year's pay-what-you-want solo album under his Nick Diamonds alias, I Am an Attic, was a cleaning-house collection that didn't provide much help either. Even the album that was responsible for Thorburn's rise to mid-level recognition, the Unicorns' 2003 effort Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, provides few clues (no pun intended)-- both because he hasn't produced that brand of ecstatically demented indie rock since, and because the band imploded a year after the album's release.
Thorburn's relative artistic facelessness is made more complicated by the fact that Islands is, essentially, a solo project itself; since the 2006 debut, Return to the Sea, no Islands record has featured the same personnel, with former Unicorns member Jaime Thompson leaving the band previous to 2008's Arm's Way and returning for the following year's pop-fixated Vapours. For Islands' latest, A Sleep & a Forgetting, the lineup's changed again, with Thompson departing shortly after the last record was released. Claiming that this record is different from its predecessor is something of a folly in itself-- every Islands record is a change-up from the one previous, almost to a fault-- but regardless, it feels like a curtain's been pulled back for the first time. It's the most cohesive-- and, possibly, the out-and-out strongest-- Islands record yet, one that retains a singular focus while zooming in on an artist who's preferred to remain at a distance, obscured by so many stylistic gambits, for so long.
Ironically, the renewed passion existent in A Sleep & a Forgetting can be credited to a loss of passion in Thorburn's personal life. In a recent interview with Vulture, he revealed that the album's creation was spurred on by a bad breakup and subsequent self-exile to "a friend of a friend's" place in Los Angeles, where he largely wrote the record's songs on piano. Thorburn's described A Sleep & a Forgetting as "confessional," and it indeed finds him at his most lyrically direct and naked, whether it be the open-ended questions asked to no one on the album's beautifully burnt-out penultimate track, "Don't I Love You", or the opening couplet on "Can't Feel My Face", which pretty much spells it out for you: "I miss my wife/ I miss my best friend."...full text
PrettymuchamazingIf Islands’ 2006′s debut Return to the Sea is the groups’ master portfolio that showcased the wide range of what Nick Diamonds and company are capable of, then the latest A Sleep & A Forgetting is the work of a seasoned, matured Diamonds (now the more grown-up “Thorburn”), who may be over the hype and is ready to sincerely share his true artistry through honest, simple songs.
The former, like a carnival ride with sporadic stops at power pop sunniness and stylized polka-tinged ballads, and even the dance-y, synth-loaded 2009 release Vapours, seem to be Thorburn’s effort to grab attention with catchy choruses and jig-inducing beats. Now that Thorburn has the attention, it’s as if he can finally strip away the layers of jittery pop to reveal a simpler man. The former frontman of The Unicorns wrote A Sleep & A Forgetting after the end of a relationship. Recorded live in less than two weeks, the album sounds like the earnest confessions of a humbler Thorburn, an organized personal letter of sorts full of spilled out, unadulterated thoughts. The fact that Thorburn started writing on Valentine’s Day only adds to a feeling of a thought-out closure with the album’s release date of February 14.
With honesty comes transparency. With lyrics like “I loved a girl and I will never love again,” Thorburn isn’t flirting with subtlety. Instead, the album depends on rich instrumentation and simple delivery to convey meaning. With the album’s narrative arc, more solemn blocks book-end the climactic middle, which has a lot of old Islands nostalgia bleeding through. Tracks like “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Hallways” are reminiscent of the feel-good Vapours. Even Thorburn’s characteristic voice is drastically different from some tracks to others. In “Can’t Feel My Face,” the vocals sound like they’re being projected to the audience, contrasting those of “Same Thing,” the closing track on the album which comprises of a much more soft-spoken Thorburn. The latter sounds like an intimate conversation as opposed to the former’s anthem-like chorus that seems to be delivered from a separate stage rather than whispered to the ear. It’s this contrast between the two extremes that makes the climactic middle sound like Thorburn is making light of his own sorrow with matter-of-fact statements like “I miss my wife.” While these tracks show that Thorburn is still very much the same man who concocted the sing-and-dance-along-worthy numbers from albums past, his talent really shines through on the more effortless, stripped-down tracks....full text
SlantmagazineWhen Nick Diamonds reverted to Nick Thorburn, his given name, before the release of Islands' second album, the change signaled more than just an artist shedding a silly stage name. On a deeper level, it symbolized a transition away from the childish, oddball aesthetic of Islands' first album and his previous work with the Unicorns, a concerted bid for maturity that's left his consequent output strained and lifeless. The frustratingly messy early work was never exactly thrilling, but it buzzed with strange instruments, grand concepts, and unconventional song structures. That changed on Arm's Way, which replaced innocence with self-seriousness, curiosity with pomposity, a transformation that made the resulting material feel bloated and joyless.
This was followed by Vapours, a far less adventurous effort which scaled back the band's music into the realm of tempered restraint. It's an approach that continues on A Sleep & a Forgetting, which is equally bland and unsurprising. The puffiness that made Arm's Way such a muddle is mostly gone, but so is any sense of adventurousness, along with most of the reason for listening. This is mildly composed, generally genial pop, with a few good hooks and ideas scattered throughout. Most of it finds Thorburn rooted behind a piano, and the instrumentally simplistic songs that result, making for a sweeping string trill here and a slide whistle there, are too well behaved to garner much interest.
On "This Is Not a Song," Thorburn directs his lyrics at himself, a gesture that reads as an attempt to convince himself that this newfound probity is the right choice, but it instead comes off as a weak, lazy response to the weirdo aesthetic he embodied early in his career, removing the ambition that made that work so frustratingly interesting, rather than trying to iron out the frustrating parts. The opening of "Never Go Solo," with its meta-textual "This is not a band/You are not a fan" couplet, highlights the general grasping for ideas that occurs here, the lyrics dancing around boilerplate concepts that are never fully explored....full text
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