For a little under 20 years, Canadian indie pop group Islands have been making music just a bit left of center from alternative radio fodder. They’ve maintain their integrity by not bringing in a team of songwriters and producers who have studied the marketing algorithms of TikTok, to guarantee heaven’s rain money upon them. Instead, at the heart of their sound lies the plaintive vocals of Nick Thorburn, which carries a heavy emotional malaise. On their ninth album And That’s Why Dolphins Lost Their Legs, that malaise is a muted color when it comes to both the lyrical themes and sonic delivery.
Thornburn has said the album taps into their darkest impulses, but it depends on what you consider dark. If your favorite bands are The Cure and Bauhaus, this might not exactly fit that criteria. The clouds of the rainy day this album captures are marginally more threatening than those that circle Taylor Swift’s Folklore. That’s not the end of the Swift comparisons, either, as sometimes the vocals find a similar hushed intensity as hers. This does not keep a song like “‘Headlines” from coming across as upbeat, even when Thornburn declares things have him so down he might order a hearse.
Innovative vocal production is one of the album’s strengths, stacking up more closely to contemporary pop. Vocally, Thornburn keeps things in a comfortable midrange, not so much belting anything out as more thoughtfully choosing where he places his voice. The arrangements are pretty simple, mostly hovering within the same musical theme, and the formula doesn’t feel as obvious until “Hard to Argue.” The first sonically experimental moment comes by way of “Pelican,” though once it finds the groove of the verse, it’s not particularly odd.
“Driven Snow” finds them going the Death Cab For Cutie ballad route, while “Bite My Tongue” finds some of the luster waning as the album begins to drop the tempo. There is some decent guitar work in play at this point, and as they continue further down this path with “Violet,” Thorburn’s vocals still showcase the same fragile musing.
Thankfully Islands break themselves out of this trajectory with “Too Far Gone.” The sleepy feel of the vocals glides over an angular pattern, and the group sounds all the more inspired. The last two songs help to turn the tide on an album that begins to stagnate in the uniformity of mood it lingers upon. And That’s Why Dolphins Lost Their Legs offers a little more challenge and reward than typical indie pop often does, embracing its imperfections in a world where those can be edited out with a click of a mouse.