Album Review: Islands | A Sleep & A Forgetting

by Eliza C. Thompson

After an especially traumatic breakup, Islands frontman Nick Thorburn moved from New York to Los Angeles, looking to find solace in a new environment. On Valentine’s Day of last year, Thorburn sat down at a piano and began to play what would become A Sleep & A Forgetting (out now on Anti-), an album in which Thorburn exorcises the demons of his heartbreak, showing both despair and forward-looking optimism. Recorded in just two weeks, the album is less tight than Islands’ previous work, which is dominated by chorus-heavy pop gems. Just as one might envision the work of the freshly heartbroken to be, the album is rife with raw emotion and sentimentally dramatic ruminations. Thorburn explores his failed relationship from a place of quiet solitude, creating dreamy, emotionally wrought tracks tinged with both light and dark as his beautiful vocals sweep from angelic to heavy and saddened. The quieter, pared-down tracks bring to mind the work of the late Elliott Smith, making it no surprise that Rob Schnapf, who co-produced much of Smith’s work, also worked on the album.

This is Not a Song,” a tear-streaked ode to sadness and mistakes of the heart, sets the tone early on. Thorburn even calls himself out by name, singing, “Nick, if you ever learn it never shows.” On “No Crying,” Thorburn explores the first signs of emotional recovery, asking “If I don’t feel bad is something wrong?” in a voice that sounds like a less raspy Tom Waits. Thorburn takes a break from his own autobiographical experience and channels the spirit of Buddy Holly’s widow on “Oh Maria,” drawing inspiration from the reoccurring dream she had after Holly’s death. “She said if everyday’s a holiday/Then today must be the Day of the Dead,” he sings, showing off his vocal range as he sweeps from alto to ethereal falsetto.

The album gains some needed momentum on the more dynamic numbers “Hallways” and “Can’t Feel My Face,” which are reminiscent of Islands’ 2009 album Vapours. On the blues-tinged “Hallways,” Thorburn sings in harmony over fast-paced drumbeats and piano chords, the sound shifting into more optimistic terrain. The upbeat tempo of “Can’t Feel My Face” seems to be ironic, especially when Thorburn belts out lyrics like “I lost my love/It brought me so low.” Throughout A Sleep & A Forgetting, Thorburn creates a raw, touchingly honest portrait of heartbreak that rings true. Those who spent their February recalling old wounds will find catharsis and relief, but those who prefer the catchy pop of Thorburn’s earlier work will still find a few danceable tunes amidst the heartache. 

-Adrienne Urbanski

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