If Islands' 2006's debut Return to the Sea is the groups' master portfolio that showcased the wide range of what Nick Diamonds and company are capable of, then the latest A Sleep & A Forgetting is the work of a seasoned, matured Diamonds (now the more grown-up "Thorburn"), who may be over the hype and is ready to sincerely share his true artistry through honest, simple songs.
The former, like a carnival ride with sporadic stops at power pop sunniness and stylized polka-tinged ballads, and even the dance-y, synth-loaded 2009 release Vapours, seem to be Thorburn's effort to grab attention with catchy choruses and jig-inducing beats. Now that Thorburn has the attention, it's as if he can finally strip away the layers of jittery pop to reveal a simpler man. The former frontman of The Unicorns wrote A Sleep & A Forgetting after the end of a relationship. Recorded live in less than two weeks, the album sounds like the earnest confessions of a humbler Thorburn, an organized personal letter of sorts full of spilled out, unadulterated thoughts. The fact that Thorburn started writing on Valentine's Day only adds to a feeling of a thought-out closure with the album's release date of February 14.
With honesty comes transparency. With lyrics like "I loved a girl and I will never love again," Thorburn isn't flirting with subtlety. Instead, the album depends on rich instrumentation and simple delivery to convey meaning. With the album's narrative arc, more solemn blocks book-end the climactic middle, which has a lot of old Islands nostalgia bleeding through. Tracks like "Can't Feel My Face" and "Hallways" are reminiscent of the feel-good Vapours. Even Thorburn's characteristic voice is drastically different from some tracks to others. In "Can't Feel My Face," the vocals sound like they're being projected to the audience, contrasting those of "Same Thing," the closing track on the album which comprises of a much more soft-spoken Thorburn. The latter sounds like an intimate conversation as opposed to the former's anthem-like chorus that seems to be delivered from a separate stage rather than whispered to the ear. It's this contrast between the two extremes that makes the climactic middle sound like Thorburn is making light of his own sorrow with matter-of-fact statements like "I miss my wife." While these tracks show that Thorburn is still very much the same man who concocted the sing-and-dance-along-worthy numbers from albums past, his talent really shines through on the more effortless, stripped-down tracks.
"Oh, Maria" is the innocent standout of the album. Starting out with just an acoustic guitar and unfiltered vocals, the track tells the story of the widow of Buddy Holly. This serves as the singular song on the album in which Thorburn becomes allegorical with a third-person account. Yet, this, in a way, seems to be the most beautifully honest track. As a wavering solo piano softly seeps in with warm cymbal splashes, the song thickens with layers of rich orchestral tones and angelic vocal harmonies. Coming full circle, a solo guitar carries the melody briefly before Thorburn's voice returns to end the track: "Just think of me / when you're falling asleep. / When you wake up, / you'll be able to dream." Accordingly, the song ends with almost heart-wrenching leading tones and a satisfying, resolving cadence.
Much of the album depends on these rich orchestral swells with generous waves of cymbal rolls and deep piano chords. Coupled with cathartic lyrics, A Sleep & A Forgetting is Thorburn's, most honest yet. While past Islands albums are like the initial handshake of a first impression, this latest release is like the story a best friend confides to you at the late hours of the night. With no more tricks up his sleeve, Thorburn offers a simply-dressed, no-frills conversation of longing, sorrow, and heartache.