There are two defining characteristics of Nick Thorburn’s work of which you need to be aware. For one, he is a tunesmith of uncommon finesse; his melodies are so simple it’s a constant amazement that they weren’t written decades earlier, and so addicting that his work is instantly memorable. And two, he is unusually obsessed with death – his songs tend to marry cheerful pop melodies to lyrics about human mortality, giving his music an oddly sinister mix of magic and morbidity that one might otherwise associate with a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.
Thorburn has followed his twin impulses to make some of the weirdest, most wonderful pop music of this young century — and for whatever reason, he seems to do his best work under the Islands moniker. (He’s also recorded as The Unicorns and Human Highway). The first Islands LP was the widescreen pop classic Return to the Sea, an album that scaled melodic heights and took surreal detours into hip-hop and calypso. After that, Thorburn stretched his two grand obsessions to their breaking point for the winding, death-haunted guitar-rock epic, Arm’s Way. The latter was an album of thrilling ambition, but tragically, it fell on deaf ears; most critics were so put off by its excess that they failed to recognize its imagination and its musicality, leaving it a grossly underappreciated gem.
I think the backlash against Arm’s Way really got to Thorburn. Or perhaps he’s just not the kind of musician who likes to stay in one place for long. For whatever reason, the third Islands LP, Vapours, is Arm’s Way’s polar opposite, scaling back the usual Islands ambition and grandeur for their most focused and concise record yet, by a long shot. Not only are its 12 tracks all very short — several are under three minutes, few are over four — but it foregoes the usual Islands left-turns in favor of a more concentrated genre experiment.
Thorburn’s melodic gift is still very much intact, and there’s still the spectre of something spooky and shadowy hanging over these songs; even so, Vapours is an album that concentrates, for the first time, on the third of Islands’ great virtues: their keen sense of rhythm. But this isn’t so much because of Thorburn as it is his partner-in-crime Jamie Thompson, the Islands drummer who sat out Arm’s Way but returns here, bringing with him a renewed love of The Beat.
And that’s what Vapours is all about. This record peels away the layers of proggy excess that made Arm’s Way both thrilling and sometimes frustrating, leaving only the bare essence of rhythm. This is an Islands album you can dance to, and if Return to the Sea found an unlikely touchstone in Paul Simon’s Graceland, the songs on Vapours find their footing elsewhere—in modern R&B, in ’80s-tinted synth-pop, and yes, in African rhythms as well.
Initially, it’s not a winsome equation. The great charm of the Islands has always been Thorburn’s wide-eyed sense of exploration, his utter rejection of boundaries; Vapours, meanwhile, is by far the smallest-scale album ever recorded under the Islands name. And yet, it reveals itself over time to be more than just a set of hot beats, but a true spiritual heir to Return to the Sea. Only here, the band refines its craft and tempers its ambition with a newfound sense of brevity: Rather than let their imaginations run wild over a series of sprawling epics, they integrate their wilder impulses into their more compact, pop-oriented song structures. With an essentially small palette of sounds—the record is mostly built around synthesizers and a drum machine—they invoke a surprising array of styles and ideas, quoting from Stax horns here and an off-kilter piano there, creating an album that cycles through a variety of rhythmic pop idioms without ever feeling like genre-exploration takes precedence over the simple appeal of a good beat.
Thorburn still writes songs about death – “Shining,” a weird tale of a mugging, is one of the most directly disturbing things he’s ever penned. But if Arm’s Way was an album that linked mortality to humankind’s capacity for evil, Vapours takes a different path, using morbid metaphors in service of songs about love and romance. As such, we have a song in which romantic peril is intermingled with the disarming of a car bomb; we also have one of the most tender and giddily love-struck ditties Thorburn’s ever written in “Tender Torture,” but even here romantic disillusionment is a reality that hangs like the shadow of death.
Did I mention that there’s a song making prominent use of Autotune? Clearly, Thorburn has lost none of his impish wit, his sense of mischief, or his adventurous spirit. He’s simply learned to focus them, to make his winding imagination the driving force behind some of his loveliest melodies and tightest, most memorable songs; as such, Vapours may lack the mammoth impact of Return to the Sea, but it is, in its own way, no less a feat of creativity, and no less quintessentially Islands.