It’s a treat to see a band follow an ambitious and successful debut with one that pushes itself even further. Islands’ Arm’s Way drifts into much darker areas than 2006’s Return to the Sea did, but the band retains its yearning soul and hopeful spirit.
Leadman Nick Thorburn bursts with lyrical and musical ideas that diverge and digress before culminating in powerfully realized conclusions. Morbidity continues to define him as a lyricist, and going forward, it will be interesting to watch Islands reconcile the lyrical content with his joyful music.
Thornburn’s vocal style sometimes drifts past heartfelt earnestness into showtune-like schmaltz. His occasionally pseudo-intellectual subject matter — the Heidegger-inspired “In the Rushes” and the epic eleven-minute closing track, “Vertigo (If It’s a Crime),” which follows a defendant from his court case to the consummation of his date with a hangman’s noose — seems too eager for profundity.
But the pieces fit. Morose topics — “Pieces of You” inspired by high school classmates of Thornburn’s who hacked up a fisherman — flow between playful, upbeat romps. Opener “The Arm” introduces the album’s obtuse morbidity (“That’s why the arm came for you!”) inside an adventure-theme guitar, string and synth motif.
Bassist Patrice Agbokou is the unlikely driving force across the album’s countless intra-song tempo, mood, and stylistic changes. His frisky fretwork sticks close to a sixteenth-note dance-music groove while busily bounding around the chord progressions of the Balkan-disco “Pieces of You.” Agbokou sits back during the quiet half of the somber “In the Rushes,” which channels Black Heart Procession, before springing into a spirited “homage” to the Who’s “A Quick One While You’re Away.” “You are forgotten!”
The constant shifts in tone and style will try listeners’ patience, although only rarely does Arm’s Way devolve into gimmickry. The roadrunner-quick bass groove of “Pieces of You” delights, at least until the Buster Poindexter tribute at the song’s conclusion, a stunningly, and seemingly unironic, cruise-ship conga-line afterthought that’s the album’s only ill-advised genre excursion.
Arm’s Way represents a step forward from Return to the Sea creatively if not as an artistic whole. It speaks to the band’s immense talent that its second album already finds Islands at somewhat of a crossroads. Arm’s Way is a damn fine stopping-point regardless of which way they decide to travel.