Jun 18, 2021
By Gareth O’Malley
Considering the fractious circumstances surrounding the breakup of The Unicorns—the project which made way for the formation of Islands in 2005—you could hardly have blamed Nick Thorburn for quietly putting his main musical focus out to pasture. That’s exactly what happened once the Montréal band released a pair of polar opposite records in 2016. Taste focused heavily on an electronic sound palette, while Should I Remain Here, At Sea? was a barebones spiritual successor to the lauded debut Islands album, Return to the Sea, subsequently taken on tour later that year for its 10th anniversary. Thorburn was ready for something new by then—and yet, here we are: five years later, that understated dissolution a distant memory. So what changed?
The answer lies in the fact that Thorburn just couldn’t walk away. He’d written songs for a new project, yet Islands was right there, laying dormant—perhaps ready to be roused from hibernation. He had a case of islomania, an obsessional enthusiasm or partiality for islands; hence, the slyly self-referential title of the band’s eighth album. Notably, their established lineup is present and accounted for—namely, Adam Halferty and brothers Evan and Geordie Gordon, with a helping hand provided by Mike Stroud of RATATAT on the vocoder-flecked, space-bound strutting funk of “A Passionate Age”—and what turned out to be an extended hiatus has refreshed the quartet considerably. Islands sound liberated, offering the listener another Taste of the band at its most accessible.
This is Thorburn’s pop album, and he’s not shy about it; what would become Islomania started out as a batch of songs with a particular focus on rhythm and groove, and what better way to flesh those out than with a tried and true band behind him? Lead single “(We Like To) Do It With the Lights On” finds Islands in remarkably playful form, seeking out the joy and pleasure in life. An ode to intimacy and vulnerability, it acts as a reminder that, in Thorburn’s words, “despite the darkness and conflict and pain, there’s still goodness in the world.”
That sort of unfettered joie de vivre runs through the record, even when it confronts more serious themes. “Closed Captioning” cries out for communication and understanding in the midst of unrest, swept along by all manner of percussion and a pair of dazzling performances from the rhythm section of drummer Halferty and bassist Evan Gordon. Centerpiece “Set the Fairlight,” meanwhile, stretches to nearly six minutes and is one of several songs—along with “Carpenter” and the seemingly effortless brilliance of the soaring penultimate track “Marble”—that you’d have to imagine would be smash hits in a parallel universe more attuned to this Canadian indie rock quartet’s pop turn; they certainly deserve to be in this one.
Any preconceived notions of this band should be checked at the door before diving into its new album and being greeted by the irresistible sweetness of the title track. A litany of thrills lies within Islomania, an album that’s strikingly immediate yet reveals its layers and depths upon repeated listens. Thorburn could have moved on after bringing this project back to where it all began, and we wouldn’t have heard this album—certainly not in this form, and perhaps not in any form whatsoever. Perish the thought: what we got instead is a record that’s invigorating from start to finish. Thorburn and Islands are back with a bang, and deserving of your full attention. (www.islandsareforever.com)
Author rating: 7.5/10
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