If you’re looking for an album to mope to this Valentine’s Day, look no further than the latest from Islands. Upon first listen, it’s sort of unexpected how consumed with loss this disc is, whether it’s the loss of a lover or a bandmate. Considering all of Islands’ previous singles have been gleefully upbeat (sample title: “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby” from their amazing debut album Rough Gem), it throws the listener for a loop seeing titles like “Lonely Love,” “No Crying,” and “Never Go Solo.” But according to lead singer and lyricist Nick Thorburn, ““I left New York after the end of a relationship and came to Los Angeles. This record deals with loss, with memory and forgetting and with dreaming. I started writing it on Valentine’s Day and it’s coming out on Valentine’s Day.”
So while you’re not going to get any of the atmospheric weirdness of their previous releases, what you do have with A Sleep And A Forgetting is a mature, cohesive build on what has already made the Islands sound so intriguing. Recorded in less than two weeks, the songs have an immediacy and a freshness to them that definitely grows on you with multiple listens. Starting things off, “In A Dream It Seemed Real” is ethereal and strangely haunting, leading right into the slow-burning, soulful “This Is Not A Song.” The spare nature of the instrumentation is an interesting counterpoint to utterly despairing lyrics like “If Penny rolls away, I will have lost everything / In many subtle ways, I already don’t have anything.”
While Thornburn alludes to this album being the product of a breakup, it’s hard not to read a little bit of inter-band drama in some of these songs, considering drummer Jamie Thompson left the band for the second time prior to their 2010 tour. Most evident of this is “Never Go Solo,” one of the most energetic yet pointed moments of the album with its dark swirls of piano and erratic tonal shifts. Songs like this are why A Sleep And A Forgetting demands multiple listens to really get into it – on first listen, it seems almost offputtingly bleak, but by the third spin or so, you start to realize how well-crafted, interesting, and relatable this material is. And as always, they’ve got an ear for catchiness: “Lonely Love,” despite its depressing title, has a peppy folk-pop feel to it with the strums of acoustic guitar and Thorburn’s crystalline voice.
And luckily, there’s a good amount of tracks that shift out of the mood of moroseness. “Hallways” is jam-packed with handclaps, jaunty piano, and upbeat harmonies, while “Can’t Feel My Face” is easily one of the coolest moments here, sounding like a cross between garage band and ‘50s pop. Meanwhile, though stripped-down and slow, “Oh Maria” is one of the album’s standouts, featuring little more than Thorburn’s warm voice and an acoustic guitar until the piano and cymbals start crashing in. This would’ve made an amazing closer to the album, actually.Thorburn has never been this revealing and honest in his lyricism, and as excellent as Islands’ early albums were, all full of shimmering pop and textures culled from every genre of music, they nevertheless had this sense of intimacy. It’s an interesting trade-off, but with a band that shapeshifts this much, who knows where they will be on their next disc.