Heartbreak is a somber, yet beautiful beast. From the origins of blues-based American music, musicians have often been at their most expressive whilst crooning exclamations of love lost. Continuing this long tradition, Islands’ fourth release, A Sleep & A Forgetting, pairs Nick Thorburn’s painful, autobiographical storytelling with beautiful, soulful pop arrangements.
From start to finish, the album softly states itself as Islands’ most mature release to date, both lyrically and stylistically. The synth-heavy, playful indie-rock that once defined Islands and The Unicorns (also fronted by Thorburn), has been stripped away to reveal the bare roots blues at the heart of Thorburn’s songwriting. Accented by mostly light drum parts and variety of acoustic and synthesized keyboards (as well as subtle hints of violin, mellotron and Farfisa) the songs contain Islands’ usual level of showmanship, without relying too heavily on their oldest tricks. In fact, for the most part, the band seems to point their gaze at an even older aesthetic, with influences on the album dating back to legends like Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and the Four Tops. In fact, omitting drum machines and a few other elements that give away Thorburn’s signature flair and spontaneity, the band could easily fire up a time machine, set their coordinates to a decade long passed, and perform these tracks in a smoky nightclub, tuxedos and all.
Thorburn’s lyrics, influenced by his own, rather recent heartbreak, have matured in several ways as well. Normally heavily reliant on playful metaphors, he is not afraid to croon sad, literal paintings of his emotions at their most fragile. Each track seems to take a different piece of the depression one experiences after a relationship comes to an end, and elaborates on that feeling in beautiful harmony. These include – but definitely are not limited to – desperation (“Cold Again”) and numbness (“No Crying,” “Can’t Feel My Face”). A few of these desperate emotions lead to quite beautiful moments on the album. Dreamy-sounding hustle “Hallways” consists of an entire verse of the word “wait,” bringing the impatient mood of the track to light. And when Nick declares, in the closing lines of final-track “Same Thing”, “I can’t wait to see what becomes of me, the ease with which I sleep tends to frighten me,” Nick’s anxiety transmits straight to the listener’s emotional core.
This Valentine’s season, I have listened to A Day & A Forgetting several times on repeat, not out of personal grief, but because I am so compelled by how real it is. While music can be fun and artistic, what I’ve always adored most is the way an album can truly give a glimpse inside someone’s soul and mind in a way no other media can. This album stands apart from others on musical and stylistic grounds as well, but Islands’ greatest achievement is a truly human representation of heartbreak. Job well done, and feel better soon, Nick.
Stream: Islands – “Hallways”