Islands – Vapours

[ANTI-; 2009]

A look at Vapours’ album art is sure to result in mixed expectations. The relatively simple image implies simplicity and modesty – a relief after the sprawling, overlong Arm’s Way, which had an appropriately elaborate, ridiculous album cover. At the same time, it’s self-consciously DIY and childish – a visualization of the colourful and juvenile nature of Islands’ music, taken too far. Pastel colours, amateurish text, and a simple image of frontman Nick Diamonds – looking doe-eyed and childlike – form an impression of a transparently pathetic attempt to get back-to-basics.

Let’s just get it out of the way; the Montréal band’s last album Arm’s Way, was a complete disaster. I know it, you know it, Nick knows it, and Vapours is their way of apologizing for it. It feels like an overt acknowledgment of – if not repentance for – past mistakes, but is so earnest to re-establish what made Islands so great in the first place that it completely misses the mark, and instead delivers something entirely different from both the indie-prog of Arm’s Way and the tropical nostalgia of Return to the Sea. What we get here, at its core, is a collection of pleasant songs with catchy melodies — but there isn’t much else, and a core does not a whole make.

That’s not to say that Vapours is a bad album, or even a disappointment per se – expectations were certainly lowered after the last album. But despite good intentions, the flaws of Arm’s Way are just as present here; where that album was so bloated with “ambition” and failed attempts at pomp that it simply ran together as a string of unsuccessful experiments, this album feels like the same song over and over again. While it’s a different kind of sameness, it’s same-y nonetheless. It’s not even a problem with the songwriting (though we’ll get to that later) – the production is so basic and simple that the songs consist mostly of the exactly same instrumental palette, simple drums, an occasional synth, and some very neutered guitar.

When “Switched On” begins the album, it’s a positive start – there’s no bloat and it’s got a catchy, accessible melody.  It’s a bit predictable and safe, but admittedly a relief.  “No You Don’t” provides a gentle disco beat, nothing too out of the ordinary for 2009 indie rock.  But therein lies the inherent problem this time around; nothing on this album could be considered out of the ordinary.  There are two kinds of songs on this album: the straightforward limp-wristed rockers like “Switched On,” the title track, and “The Drums,” and some minor flirtations with disco-leaning dance-rock like “No You Don’t,” “Devout,” and “Heartbeat.” Not to completely underwrite the production here – as bland as it may be, some of the songs do have some small differentiating characteristics, like the heavy percussion on “The Drums” or ethereal vocals on “On Foreigner,” but these elements end up feeling more like shallow window-dressing rather than vital elements of songcraft.

Diamonds hasn’t gone completely stale. As much as it feels like a regression, there are some new sounds and styles on Vapours. Unfortunately, they tend to be miserable, embarrassing failures or just unremarkable forays into atmospherics. “Heartbeats” is likely to be one of the most-discussed tracks off of Vapours, as what would probably be one of the catchiest, memorable songs on the album is unequivocally slaughtered by a snarky and self-aware use of autotune. To be fair, it isn’t done in an obnoxious, ridiculous way (see: Discovery, YACHT), but it’s still exaggerated and unpleasant. It makes the song notable for all the wrong reasons and derails anything that could have been even remotely enjoyable. On the other hand, there are some more mature, restrained experiments with ethereality and ambience here; gorgeous closer “Everything is Under Control” manages a breathtaking first half before it devolves into a grandiose, saccharine mess with all the subtlety of The Lion King soundtrack. The other song where the otherworldly is attempted, “On Foreigner,” features a gorgeous intro that is unexpectedly sideswiped by some more typical Islands sounds, and later sloppily pasted onto the bridge, sounding completely careless and anachronistic.

Vapours is a frustrating album, made all the more so by the fact that it’s clear that Diamonds himself realizes he lost his way with his previous effort. But instead of moving on, he’s moving backward – and completely failing to capture that gorgeous, carefree tropical feeling of Return to the Sea. What we get here is a collection of mostly perfunctory songs recorded in an overly earnest, eager-to-please manner; and in trying to please everybody, Diamonds has made a stunningly generic-sounding record. If you wanted to explain to someone what mildly playful indie rock in 2009 sounded like, you might choose to play them Vapours. And if they were bored, or even offended – you’d probably be hard-pressed to disagree.