The following article will be published in Beatroute AB in February 2012.
Last February, Islands front man Nick Thorburn left Brooklyn with a broken heart. Heartache’s lost highway took him across the continent to the City of Angels where, with the help of an old piano, he documented his pain. A year later, the spoils of Thorburn’s self imposed, anguish laden solitude will seep into the public conscious. Island’s “A Sleep and A Forgetting” is set for release, ironically, this Valentines Day.
It has long been established, most famously by Shakespeare, that music is the food of love. More recent poetic traditions have added and addendum to the great bard’s famous maxim, however. T.S. Elliot, Leonard Cohen and a host of others have shown that the absence of love is oft’ the food of music. Indeed, modern music lovers owe much to heartache; it has consistently proven to be a most reliable muse to our beloved musicians. The blues burst from the deceptively fertile soil of heartache; heartache spawned raw, confessional masterpieces such as Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Beck’s Sea Change.
With “A Sleep and a Forgetting”, Islands step out of an established tradition of country and western inspired sad songs, choosing pop as a backdrop for Thorburn’s sad words. Heartbroken pop is hardly new; Brian Wilson did a masterful job of wedding pop to melancholy throughout his career, no doubt inspiring Elliott Smith to follow suit on “XO”. This strange union was later perfected by Wilco on 1999’s “Summerteeth”.
Unfortunately, whereas Wilco, Wilson and Smith manage to capture the curious power of ambivalence in their respective strange, musical alloys, “A Sleep and a Forgetting” fails.
Yes, the album proves that Islands are more than capable of crafting some pretty little tunes reminiscent of The Travelling Willburys. Yes, Evan Gordon’s production is wonderful. But overall, the album falls flat.
The main problem with “A Sleep and a Forgetting” is that, quite simply, the lyrics fail to capture Thorburn’s supposedly sad emotional state. Song titles such as “This is Not a Song” betray Thorburn’s desperate attempt to hide behind irony instead of facing the reality of his pain. Instead, we question whether his sadness was genuine to begin with, left to wonder what happened to the muse of melancholy.