Nick Thorburn has been the unbreakable backbone of so many quirk-infused amalgamations. There was The Unicorns, beloved lo-fi staples hailing from the great white north. There is Th’ Corn Gangg, spawn of Unicorns, marriage of indie and hip hop. Human Highway, Mister Heavenly, and Reefer too. And then there’s Islands— delightful purveyors of pop. Thorburn doesn’t do it alone—he’s often arm in arm with Jamie Thompson, who has been around for various forms of each of the above bands, and there’s an ever-revolving platter of talented musicians lending hands to his work. On Islands’ latest, though, titled A Sleep & A Forgetting, Thorburn anchors every note, every contribution with a personal outpouring of emotion and heartbreak, the likes of which we’ve never seen from him before.
At its core, A Sleep & A Forgetting is a bare bones examination of a void in Thorburn’s chest. The construction is impeccable—it’s the caliber we’ve come to expect, it’s still crazy infectious, but the tone is different. It’s quieter and it’s sad, and it’s an interesting foray into introspection. It’s rather startling to hear such heartbreak drip from Thorburn, the fellow who brought us jaunty pop jams like “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby” (“sugar dumpling, muffin baby / this world is going crazy”), but it’s great to see him experimenting, using his work as a new vehicle.
At times, there’s a ’50s prom slow-jam vibe. There’s longing—not the Oberst style, drunk and sobbing in a bathtub and an emotive apocalypse is upon us sort of longing, but more of an understated, gentle sadness. The doo wop style harmonies are tonic, the stripped down melodies are really quite pleasing, but with the quiet despair glimmering in the well-constructed lyrics, it might be best to avoid this record if you’ve got some booze in hand. Or it could be cathartic, if you’re into that.
The third track on the record, “Never Go Solo,” is a standout in that it’s more insistent, more driving, than most of the work. There’s this staccato piano that makes it feel like Thorburn may try to fight this depression after all, rather than just letting it wash. Of course, it’s replete with denial (“my hand is stuck in sand / there is no ocean / there is no band”), but, well—par for the course when you’re that bummed out.
That pressing-almost-fighting feel doesn’t last too long, though. Thorburn shuffles into the next song, “No Crying,” with a lounge lizard guitar lick, a soft drum, and lines like “I sympathized / I synthesized a teardrop from my tired eyes / but I don’t feel sad / and I cannot cry.” This song conjures up images of old school radio mics and expertly coiffed hair, and probably could be swapped in for a track in the Grease school dance scene without anybody batting an eye. It’s beautiful, and really, it’s a gem, though not particularly uplifting. Following, both “Hallways” and “Can’t Feel My Face” are a pop masterpieces. “Hallways” is upbeat, it’s got these Beatles-esque harmonies, a clap-along melody, a dancey backbone. It feels like hundreds of kids streaming out of high school and into summer break. Well, the music says summer break. Lyrics say summer heartbreak. Still, this song feels like a bunch of those romanticized teenage moments rolled into a three minute pop extravaganza. “Can’t Feel My Face” is a bit more synthy than the rest of the record, but still manages to stay pleasantly stripped down and true to form—enjoyable track, introspective lyrics.
It goes without saying that pop can be extremely powerful, just as much as it can just be fun—with this record, it seems Thorburn is tapping into the emotive side of art, slinking just a touch away from the kook-pop aesthetic he’s been reveling in since the Unicorns. Fear not—that aesthetic is still very much present, but A Sleep & A Forgetting is digging a bit further. This could be a serious demarcation of a new stage in artistry, or it could have just been something that needed to burst into the world so Thorburn could revert to his more fanciful whimsies. Either way, it’s exciting to see what he does next, because either way, he just gets pop music, and no matter the driving force, his work is a welcome addition to the canon.