Review Summary: Nick Thorburn hates Valentine's Day, too!
As a Break-Up Record, A Sleep And A Forgetting
checks off all the boxes quite nicely. The story has been written a thousand times before, but trust Nick Thorburn to inject some high drama into it: A Sleep And A Forgetting
comes after Thorburn endured a messy end to a relationship last Valentine’s Day and spent much of the past year in the care of a wealthy older patron (a woman, natch), who gave him a place to stay and a piano to pontificate on, the modern-day Romantic come to translate his tears to the ivories. It’s a record that wallows in clichés, be it in its release date or in its backstory or in its straight-to-the-gut lyrical matter, and for a band that’s always been the indie pop standard-bearer of bombast and glam, it all feels oh so very tragic and more than a little contrived. Yet for maybe the first time, A Sleep And A Forgetting
gets at the heart of an artist who, over years of project changes and name switches, has remained frustratingly opaque.
Thorburn has always been a hard guy to pin down, but on Islands’ 2008 triumph Arm’s Way
, it was this creative shiftiness that made his genre-mashing experiments work so well. Here, Thorburn is as direct as he’s ever been: “Sounds forming words / from the well spring of concern / while my boat in that ocean turned / on the hull I watched the city burn,” Thorburn whispers on opener “In A Dream It Seemed Real,” and it’s this portrait of a shattered relationship that is possibly the most heartfelt song of Thorburn’s career. Looking back on Islands’ discography, it has always been his music that managed to connect with me on a fundamental level - it wasn’t until the music itself became unremarkable that I really took to Thorburn the lyricist. And that’s what the music on A Sleep And A Forgetting
is, for the most part; shades of grey and greyer, a muted palette of piano, guitar, drums and bass that pales in comparison to the vibrant canvas fans of Islands have become accustomed to. It’s a bleak picture of melancholy that doesn’t want to end, and it makes the occasional gasps of air all the more rewarding: the flippant barroom piano on “Hallways” that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on that Mister Heavenly record is a particularly nice touch, as are the carnival keys on “Can’t Feel My Face.”
Those are the exceptions that prove the rule, however; A Sleep And A Forgetting
is a depressing album through and through, with all the subtlety and vitriol of the recently dispossessed yet none of the verve of Islands. “I loved a girl and I will never love again,” Thorburn moans, and yes, this is upsetting and occasionally cringe-worthy in the same way reading an old Livejournal is, but for once there is no artifice to Thorburn, no Nick Diamonds clogging up the lanes with thirty string and horn parts and lyrics about blood diamonds. Something is lost there, certainly, that manic energy and excitement that Islands always seemed to have no problem bringing, but there’s something found here, too. “Oh Maria” is the only track where Thorburn works from a third-person viewpoint, telling the story of Buddy Holly’s widow and her dreams of him, and it’s this frail, inconsequential lullaby that seems to be the only place where Thorburn can find a way to see past today and look to tomorrow: “Now that you’re all alone, do you remember that song / just think of me when you’re falling asleep / when you wake up / you’ll be able to dream.” It’s a sweet sentiment, one that resolves itself in a satisfying swell and that wrenching final line, and in its brittleness and fragile sense of loss showcases a side of Islands many will have never expected. This is the kind of raw yet hopeful vulnerability that A Sleep And A Forgetting
tends to miss in favor of more blunt emotions, and for the purposes of this record, perhaps that’s okay; everyone needs to get their demons out once in a while. Whether Thorburn can maintain this kind of shockingly honest songwriting, whether he can combine this fragmented, broken singer with the wild, carefree bandleader of the Unicorns and Arm’s Way
, will determine whether Islands will remain a going concern.