Indie rock group Islands has risen to prominence since it released its debut, Return to the Sea, in 2006. The group’s soft, melancholic sound compliments its name: wavy, reverberated guitars rock back and forth, swallowing a shore of softly-hit drums and crescendoing vocal harmonies.
For Islands’ latest album, A Sleep & A Forgetting, leading man Nicholas Thorburn lays his love life on the line, resulting in one of the group’s most personal albums to date. Although Thorburn’s rise to indie success has been achieved through both Islands and indie rock supergroup Mister Heavenly, which features actor Michael Cera (the guy plays an instrument after all), it seems that not even the frontman’s accomplishments can save him from himself.
“This record deals with loss, with memory and forgetting and with dreaming,” explains Thorburn on ANTI-, the label that represents the group. As soon as album opener “In A Dream It Seemed Real,” a depressing introduction to Thorburn’s misery, begins, the listener realizes early on that the group’s sob story is not the perfect accompaniment to a romantic Valentine’s Day — that is, unless you’re celebrating a relationship gone unquestionably awry.
“Open up your door for me,” croons Thorburn desperately, his somber pleas guided by mournful piano and ascending harmonies. “In a dream it seemed real,” sings Thorburn; the song ends abruptly as if to represent the frontman waking up from a beautiful dream turned nightmare.
“Can’t Feel My Face” is an ode to 1950s doo-wop heartbreak. Church organs ring vibrantly in the background as Thorburn tries to disguise his lament with a roaring vocal delivery.
The album closes with “Same Thing,” a beautifully dark narrative that epitomizes Thorburn’s pessimistic revelation. “I loved a girl and I will never love again / there is no one in this world I could never love again,” sings Thorburn, his hopelessness contagious to the listener. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Thorburn just broke down crying at the end of the song, drowning the atmospheric piano and electronic percussion that looms in the background.
These songs, like most of the others on the album, serve as the building blocks to Thorburn’s recovery. It’s not really about the music; Thorburn’s confessional delivery is at the forefront of the album and nothing is withheld. Thorburn courageously goes for the sadness-is-bliss approach, leaving his future in question as he lies silently in a corner reminiscing on what could have been.
This is why A Sleep & A Forgetting resonates: It doesn’t opt for the easy way out, looking towards brighter and better days. It’s more realistic, forcing listeners to endure the nostalgic pains of failed love and the sluggish, lethargic, I-hate-the-world-and-the-world-hates-me demeanor that comes with it.
The album can be redundant, though: Laying all of the contents of his failed relationship on the line, the subject matter doesn’t change much and the music that accompanies it mostly stays soft and stagnant, never outshining the lonely star it’s backing.
A Sleep & A Forgetting is here for a simple reason: to lend a helping hand to those lost in love’s unyielding bind. It’s sad — very sad — but reminds us that sometimes you have to hide in the dark for a little bit before rediscovering the light.
Printed on, Tuesday February 14, 2012 as: Islands' record evokes post-breakup emotion