By Calum Beedling
“I won’t ride another wave,/And I won’t write another word after today,” relented a seemingly defeated Nick Thorburn, frontman of the indie veteran rock group Islands, on the opening track of 2013’s Ski Mask . Their last release and seen at the time as a foreshadowing of the band’s potential demise, Ski Mask seems to have gotten Islands’ artistic malaise out of their system instead of folding, Islands have returned with not one, but two, decidedly more thematically versatile (and dare I say, intermittently hopeful) efforts in Taste and Should I Remain Here at Sea? (SIRHAS) If Ski Mask was Thorburn and co.’s commentary on the frustration of unjust indie inertia, SIRHAS and Taste is the band at their most comfortable, finding lyrical and sonic grooves that are unabashedly and triumphantly their own.
Taste, billed as album number six in the Islands oeuvre, delivers as advertised. This is a sweet album in every sense of the word, with sugary pop licks that immediately work their way into the consciousness while defying popular convention. The band has succeeded in their publicized attempt to create their own twisted version of a pop song. The front half is stacked, and the sequence of “No Milk, No Sugar,” “Carried Away,” and “It’s Heaven” is a triumvirate of melodic bliss destined for posterity. Conceptually, the album is less personal than SIRHAS, which does result in moments of lyrical banality–nonetheless, the melodies are buoyant and memorable in a way that seems like an ultimate achievement for the group. The musical tastes on this album are Islands’, and Islands’ alone.
SIRHAS, described by the band as a rawer endeavor populated with live-off-the-floor takes, is many things: chief among them, the album is lyrically mercurial–both acerbic and honest, critical yet liberated, stand out tracks “Fear”, “Right to be Misbegotten”, and poignant closer “At Sea” all resonate while exploring a healthy batch of topics. Ranging from new lyrical forays such as police brutality (“Fear”) to Thorburn’s tried and true, darkly amusing self-conscious exploration (“Misbegotten”), there is an eccentric swagger that only comes from a band comfortable in their own skin. The real gem on the album, though, is it’s sparsely cathartic closer–a synthesis of Thorburn’s unique songwriting gifts (understatement, melancholy, nautical allusions), “At Sea” reminds the listener that beauty does not require bombast; emotion is wrought through delicate chordal changes, and whispering, often indiscernible background arrangements–one is reminded of Vampire Weekend’s unprecedentedly touching 2013 track, “Hannah Hunt.”
As an exercise in both perseverance and work ethic, SIRHAS and Taste inspire. Faced with a musical milieu of chronic pop ephemera, Islands have created two albums that uniquely gesture to formalist pop structures, all the while avoiding the chaff such pursuits can yield. In his characteristic tongue-and-cheek, Thorburn temporarily breaks down the jaunty “It’s Heaven” to take in his surroundings: “I love it here on islands,” he sings. His group’s two latest albums remind us that we do too.