Perhaps in an effort to compete with Destroyer, Islands begin their new album Return to the Sea with a nine-minute epic titled “Swans (Life After Death).” Something like a heroic and mighty take on Elephant 6 style psych-pop, it’s a bold statement, a powerful song and an absolute triumph in songwriting. Easily more ambitious and moving than anything Nick Diamonds and J’aime T’ambour recorded in their previous band, the short-lived Unicorns, it’s a call for any doubters that they’ve grown up and will be taken seriously. What’s more, it was recorded with the help of Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug and Dan Boeckner, singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie and the Arcade Fire’s Tim Kingsbury. It’s a who’s-who of Canadian indie rock all packed into one gigantic rock symphony, packing every inch of the song with utter awesomeness.
The problem with putting “Swans” as the first track is that it ultimately gives the remaining ten songs some unbelievably high expectations to live up to. And, if you were to ask any of those won over by the Unicorns’ quirky Casio-pop, they might tell you that Islands can do it. But, being one of the few who found the Unicorns good rather than great, I found that task to be nearly impossible for the band, even with Wolf Parade and Arcade Fire members in tow. Yet “Humans” gets them off to a good start, plunking along on a Tom Waits-like melody with Neutral Milk Hotel style horn arrangements and a joyous chorus of whistles. And “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby,” in spite of its goofball title, is a fun bit of calypso pop, though as good as it is, it’s still no “Swans.”
“Rough Gem,” however, is incredible. On this song, Islands actually find a meeting place between The Unicorns and the Arcade Fire, not only displaying Diamonds and T’ambour’s strengths, but those of their collaborators. That is, I thought it did, until I saw only T’ambour, Diamonds and bassist Patrice Agbokou credited for this song. Curious, considering there’s no mention of violins or keyboards, but dammit, I know they’re there. And they’re a big part of why this song is so amazing, even if the band doesn’t acknowledge their presence. Perhaps some of the ghosts from Apologies to the Queen Mary paid a visit?
After the nice enough instrumental “Tsuxiit,” the band is primed for another moment of brilliance on the dub-inspired rocker “Where There’s A Will There’s a Whalebone.” Halfway through, however, rappers Subtle and Busdriver break in for a hip-hop breakdown that, although impressive, just doesn’t seem to belong there, though the band deserves effort for giving it a shot regardless. They make up for a brief misstep with the country-tinged “Volcanoes,” a gorgeous hoedown featuring more lush strings during the chorus, in which our heroes tell of an impending eruption—”We washed our mouths at the riverbed/when we noticed something glowing.” “Volcanoes,” though subtle at first, reveals some of the most gorgeous melodies on the album.
Return to the Sea loses a little steam near the end, the bestiality referencing “If” providing an innocuous lullaby before the final listed track, “Ones,” floats off in a dreamy, lovely dirge. After several minutes of rain and thunder on the unlisted eleventh track emerges “Bucky Little Wing,” a delightful little piano ditty that reveals how incredible the band can sound when avoiding fussiness. It’s one of the simplest tracks on Return to the Sea, yet also one of the best.
In spite of my initial cynicism, I am happy to say that at least half of Return to the Sea comes close to the brilliance of “Swans,” while the remainder, although flawed, still finds the Montreal group mixing melody and mischief to delightful ends. Only falling short when they attempt too much, the band’s energy is just so admirable, you can’t help but love them. There’s always time for perfect albums in the future, and Return to the Sea is too much fun to be bothered with perfection, anyhow.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.