The knock on 2008’s Arm’s Way was two words and one hyphen that no musician likes to see attached to his name: self-indulgent. It was probably a fair accusatory lob at Islands song-crafter Nick Thorburn, especially since the guy got blog famous on the back of brittle pop ditties about being a Unicorn, and Arm’s Way was a sprawling, bug-eyed epic of an album, one that eschewed easy hooks for dense instrumental flameouts. So, it’s not necessarily surprising that Thorburn has beat a hasty retreat to the open arms of the quirky pop he helped popularize this decade. That is to say, Vapours is an album that heralds a welcome return to form.
The most noticeable difference between Vapours and Arm’s Way is the length of the tracks here; nary a one hits five minutes, and the majority of them clock in at under four. Arm’s Way’s ambition had its charms, but in this format of three minutes and out, Thorburn’s pop chops shine. Wavering harmonies and choruses form the ecstatic peaks of “Disarming the Car Bomb,” the island-quiver of “On Foreigner” and the martial “Switched On,” while a delicate underpinning of longing adds layers the excellence of the title track and “No You Don’t.”
Death, both real and imagined, has always been a passenger on Thorburn’s musical outings (from his days in the ‘Corns to Reefer, Human Highway and Islands), but desperation, with a little drug use, takes over as the main lyrical motif on Vapours. There are dark alleys, big cities (perhaps related to Thorburn’s move to New York), being backed against a wall (“Shining”), struggling for control (“Everything Is Under Control”) and feeling pressured to deliver the musical goods (“I hope you don’t complain,” Thorburn sings on “Vapours”). But the darkness never kills the jocular, sing-along vibe that is set on the first track; Vapours even has an Auto-Tune screw-around session (“Heartbeat”). All told, though, you might not hear an album this year that is this grabbing and catchy and gloomy.
In certain respects, Vapours finally answers for the Unicorns’ Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? Thorburn has spent the better part of six years trying to distance himself from his old band, first by doing afro-pop with hip-hop genre experiments (Return to the Sea) and epic psych rock (Arm’s Way). Maybe it’s the return of former Unicorn bandmate Jamie Thompson and the paring down of Islands’ line-up that led to the change, or maybe it’s Thorburn’s willingness to go back to being poppy after his retro-leaning Human Highway project. Whatever it is, Vapours gives Thorburn fans what they’ve wanted for a while: a great album of pop bliss from a guy who for too long has avoided delivering just that.