Album Review: Islands – Islomania

[Royal Mountain; 2021]

It’s been five years since the last one-two punch from Nick Thorburn’s Islands – 2016’s double header of Taste and Should I Remain in Sea? showcased the band’s duality, as the former focused on electronic flourishes while the latter was more rock-forward like their previous outings. Somewhere in the middle of those two was a single solid album, but, separated like that – while making sense from a stylistic approach – left flab in an overly long narrative.

Following those albums, Thorburn quietly called it quits with Islands. He continued writing songs, toying with the idea of writing for others, but they all ended up as Islands tracks – thus the project was resurrected as unceremoniously as it was ended. Their eighth album, Islomania, is, as a result, effortless and carefree.

Everything since the project’s 2006 debut album Return to the Sea hasn’t quite lived up to that experimental pop kick-off, and after a few albums – 2012’s A Sleep & A Forgetting being the main stand out – Islands have felt more and more predictable, and less and less unique. In a sea of similar projects, Islands don’t stand out like they did when the band first started. Try as he may, Thorburn’s still writing like it’s 2006.

Islomania is his most pop-oriented effort to date, which results in a mostly tepid collection of retro-indie. It’s led by the extremely basic single “(We Like to) Do It With the Lights On”, a watered down dancefloor number where he sings “But I can’t see your face / When you’re moving out of place / I wanna dance ‘til dawn / I wanna do it with the lights on.” 2006 indeed.

The whole album follows this lead. Thorburn has stated that he came up with the title “(We Like To) Do It With The Lights On” “as a tossed-off joke,” building the song from there. It seems like this is the approach he used for most of the record, as Islomania just pisses into the wind and cares little about blowback. “Closed Captioning” is another song that continues the lazy theme of ‘innuendo pop’, as he sings “we could put it up on closed captioning” – although he it also finds him hitting some of his most flavorful moments, vocally.

Islomania is devoid of any real identity, it doesn’t even feel like an Islands album at times. It’s obvious that these songs were initially written for another purpose; they all have a sickly radio-friendly glaze over them, perhaps most obviously on the excessively irritating “A Passionate Age”, where Islands veer into full-on “Nightcall” synths. Islands have always lived in that indie-pop atmosphere that allowed frequent visits to electronic and synth patterns, sampling if necessary, but this go-round contains little of the heart or passion that was present on the band’s best releases.

Songs like “Carpenter” and “Set the Fairlight” have some of that old-school Islands mentality, displaying Thorburn’s ability to write infectious grooves. But these moments are few and far between and easily overshadowed by the homogenous tones of “Natural Law Party” and the flighty “Marble”. The record is weighed down by these moments, deterring anyone from appreciating the wholesome qualities that made Islands attractive in the first place.

Islomania closes with “Gore”, Thorburn’s definition of a ballad, imbued with some dreamy and even Funeral-esque epicness. It’s a highlight from the album, but final proof that the record never seems to fit together very well, which can probably be attributed to Thorburn’s approach to the album and his disillusionment with the project as a whole. As a result, Isolomania never feels completely like an Islands record.