Album Review: Josef Salvat – Islands

[Leafy Outlook; 2022]

“They say no man’s an island but I think I am,” proclaims Australian singer-songwriter Josef Salvat on the final track of his third studio album Islands. And perhaps that’s true – Salvat has consistently occupied a spot just slightly offshore from the mainstream pop landscape. But he deserves to be grouped with the most acclaimed of his contemporaries as he has proven himself one of the most dynamic, talented and interesting pop artists out there.

The statement may lack poetry, but since his 2016 debut album Night Swim Salvat has become adept at creating a transfixing world of lushness and melancholy balanced by blissful, melodic catchiness. His second album – 2020’s underappreciated Modern Anxiety – similarly punched high with engaging, transparent results. Now, with Islands, Salvat progresses further in his sonic palette and adds another diamond to the treasure of his discography.

Experimenting in the realms of bright synth-pop and dance sounds with satisfying twists and turns, alongside his more traditional Salvat ballads, the experimentation and emotion across these tracks prove one of the album’s primary strengths. He explores themes of sexuality, romantic uneasiness and uncertainty, and, despite his directness, it’s no less poetic – he’s just someone who accepts his feelings and is unafraid to express them. Salvat analyses himself in the context of his past and present relationships, trying to figure out what the hell is going on with himself.

He embraces the current trends of pop music by beginning with a kaleidoscopic trilogy of 80s-influenced tracks. Opener “I’m Sorry” begins with fast-paced, muted synths which could easily accompany an 80s film montage of two people shattered from an ugly break-up. The chorus is a plaintive plea for forgiveness as Salvat takes accountability for sabotaging a relationship (“I’m sorry for failing / Sorry for making such a mess / God, where do I begin?”). As a lead single, “I’m Sorry” is the most conventional the singer has been, riding the wave of nostalgic pop that has crested into the charts – yet he still injects enough personality that it stands out. The following “Promiscuity” is a more funk-driven, Prince-influenced ode to sexual freedom and Salvat’s bisexuality. It alludes to an apocalyptic hedonism that feels all the more relevant in these uncertain times; “When there’s nothing to do ‘cause the whole world is screwed / You just gotta let go”.

The highlight of this opening trilogy is undoubtedly “The Drum”, which feels darker, propulsive and deliciously melodic. It finds Salvat frantically swinging between different resolutions of getting his life together and the temptation of romance (“I met a boy who feels like home / But I’m a free spirit / I’ma file him next to You Can Have It All”). There’s a certain comedy and theatricality to his lyricism here – from clinically assessing the situation in the verses to the vulnerability of the stripped-back pre-chorus – that gives this track many layers. What really is admirable, however, is its transparency and the fact that Salvat isn’t afraid to portray the internal inconsistencies we all experience.

Many aspects of romance are addressed on Islands, giving it a multi-faceted ability to be as comforting as a soft bed and the serrated knife between the ribs. However, “So Lite” takes on aloofness and lack of substance in relationships as Salvat directs a confrontational gaze towards someone who has never experienced, well, any form of strife whatsoever (“You don’t know hunger / You don’t know hard work / You don’t know about struggle / You’ve never been burned.”) The track enthrals with its fast-paced tribal rhythms and minimalist dance production – adding new production elements each time the chorus arrives again.

The doubled-edged sword of new romance is explored on “Pleasure Pain”, where Salvat expresses frustration at his partner; “You always leave too soon / I want to hold it against ya / But look at those sweet eyes that your mother gave ya.” The lesson here is that sometimes it’s easy to find someone so attractive that you let it eclipse the evident flaws. There’s a certain irony, however, as the Salvat we hear in “The Drum” is just as adept at the games as this person he’s attracted to in “Pleasure Pain”, who ends up showing him the other side of it (“I want you to see me like I-I-I-I-I see you,” he stutters plaintively over twinkling piano).

Contrastingly, the singer can also explore how sometimes a partner is incapable of change and being what you want on the moody and propulsive “Billion Faces”. On the track, he illuminates the discrepancies between private and public relationship dynamics. It is a biting perspective: somebody watching their relationship deteriorate while pretending otherwise amongst others.

Beyond exploring the satisfaction and annoyances that love can bring, Salvat can bring a sweet tenderness to his lyrics. Opening with submerged, melancholy piano chords, “Sunbeams” eventually transforms into a crawling, sexy R&B-influenced track where Salvat revels in the discovery of not just a partner – but the appreciation of having one (“Sunbeams / I found you in the silence /Finally, I see what’s mine”). Regret seeps through the beautiful ballad “Honey On The Tongue”, which has Salvat embodying a more traditional version of himself than we’ve heard on prior albums. Featuring dominant piano and underlying synths, he uses the title as a metaphor for how easily – and tragically – feelings slip away. “Too long, too long / I led you on / I should’ve set you free by now,” he confesses.

The song that is both a highlight and is practically screaming to be the next single is “Happy” which has a relentlessly catchy chorus. Here, Salvat explores the aftermath of a breakup, fantasising about leaving his old life behind to get away from pain, despite his flimsy insistence that he holds no bitterness towards the person (“I don’t blame you for anything / But…”). With percolating, synthy production, it’s hard to really engage with the sad content of the lyrics when you can’t help nodding your head. Even when the euphoric chorus arrives and he sings “If this is what you wanted / Are you happy?” with a biting sarcasm, you are still subsumed in the fun aspects of the track.

Final track “Islands” is a powerful and introspective closer that features Salvat’s vocals at their most intense and belted with production to match. With elements of pop and rock mixed together to create a dynamic soundscape, he draws comparison between the life trajectory of friends who are getting married and having babies while Salvat himself remains unattached and perhaps not where he expected to be. The singer gives voice to the anger stemming from comparison to others and the negative aspects of the early years of adulthood from the familial disappointment (“Mother says it’s such a shame / That I’ve only got myself to blame”) and indulgent excess (“Lying under cocaine skies”). As the climax to a great album, this packs the appropriate punch. It’s personal, profound and, frankly, one of the best tracks Salvat has recorded.

Like its cover art suggests, Islands is a brilliant and colourful set of songs in which Salvat reflects on relationships both satisfying and cruel and how they altered the course of his life. The songs are engaging, memorable, fun and sometimes pretty goddamn sad, but such variety only contributes to his power as a songwriter. Too aware of the complexities and hypocrisy that underline romance, Salvat refuses to shy away from the messy role he has played in his past romances, and, as such, instils each song with an honesty that should be applauded.