In Nick Thorburn's first band, the Unicorns, his songwriting was pulled by twin obsessions: the dream of pop-star immortality and the promise of real, personal death (with a little room for comedy and romance in between). Thorburn's effective debut—following a scarcely circulated, self-released 500-copy album called Unicorns Are People Too—was the Unicorns' Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? On that album, tracks like "Ready to Die," "I Don't Wanna Die," and various numbers about ghosts explored anxieties about death (and possible but not likely afterlives) with cartoonish color, while songs like "Child Star" and "Let's Get Known" took an equally skewed, silly look inward at the business of being in a band.
Following the Unicorns' heavily self-foreshadowed dissolution, Thorburn went on to form Islands with Unicorns drummer Jamie Thompson, who has since left the band. Their debut, Return to the Sea, picked up literally where the Unicorns left off: On album opener "Swans (Life After Death)," Thorburn sings, "I woke up thirsty on the day I died," echoing and fulfilling the "Ready to Die" line "I woke up thirsty on an island in the sea." ("Swans" also resurrected the melody from an early Unicorns song.) The album went on to replace the Unicorn's marshmallow ghosts and jelly-boned skeletons with less-caricatured personal reflections and broader apocalyptic visions—human societies hunkering down like rats underground, volcanoes erupting into sudden global climate catastrophes.
Oh, and calypso. Thorburn and motley crew broadened their musical palette on Return to the Sea, opening up the Unicorns' preciously singular style to outside influences and almost wholly ditching their quirky, distorted synths for more organic sounds, including violin and steel drums.
Arm's Way is Islands' first album as a real, tour-hardened band rather than a loosely organized studio project, and the solidified sextet sound more comfortable and confident than ever. The album has a musical cohesion reminiscent of their clearly well-rehearsed but still breezy live show. "This record was made by six people," says Thorburn. "As opposed to Return to the Sea, where we had myself and Jamie making a record more as a project than as a band, bringing in friends to lay down impromptu arrangements."
He adds, "On Return to the Sea we had really cool instrumentation because we had so many different people coming with such bizarre instruments—quicas and medieval bagpipes and all sorts of fun things. This was more of a concerted effort to showcase the band, after 18 months of solid touring, the way they would be heard live."
It's not without its tangents, though—"Creeper" is a disco stomp led by drum- machine pulse, palm-muted guitar, and vamping strings; "J'Aime Vous Voire Quitter" breaks into an easy, laughing tropical lope that sounds like the goof of a seasoned session band; "Life in Jail" similarly ditches its moping pace for some swinging fiddle and finger-picking.
Lyrically, though, Arm's Way takes a sharp turn, leaving behind the promises of pop and the shadow of death (though returning to the scene of a car crash) to explore a fascination with crime and punishment. "Creeper" tells the story of a violent home invasion. The opening track, "The Arm," casts the titular appendage as the punitive reach of the law or fate/death itself. "Life in Jail" asks sincerely, "You sure you want to spend your life in jail?" positing imprisonment or loss of freedom as a clear, conscious choice, though not necessarily referring to a literal jail (elsewhere, references to busy bees seem to suggest workaday industrial society as its own kind of prison). "I Feel Evil Creeping In" finds Thorburn admitting, "It was me that committed the felony." "Vertigo (If It's a Crime)" has him hanging for his misdeeds and bemoaning his fate.
"I get inspiration, and then I might embellish and use a kind of heavy-handed metaphor or allegory to tell the story," says Thorburn of the album's fixations. "I don't think there's necessarily any direct coordination between writing about home invasion and being invaded. There's those feelings, there's emotional elements—personal relationship deteriorating, business relationships deteriorating—but it's not necessarily an autobiography.
"It's more the way I process things, the kind of language I use. Like something bad will happen to me... Here's an example: When Jamie, one of my oldest friends and my longest collaborators, left the band, I remember telling Patrick [Gregoire], the guitar player, that I felt stabbed in the back, betrayed. Well, he didn't really stab me in the back; he was pretty up front about everything. And I said, 'Fine, he stabbed me in the face.' That ended up being a lyric, but I wasn't extracting metaphors from some contrived place."
Nor do the album's new themes necessarily reflect a new set of anxieties. Of "In the Rushes," a song whose coda bends the Who's "A Quick One While He's Away" into the weirdly triumphant refrain "You are forgotten," Thorburn says, "The song is about facing one's mortality, and the sudden realization—the in-flashing—of the finitude of things. Using 'A Quick One While He's Away' as an appendage of the song reflects on continuation through pop music. Switching up 'you are forgiven' for 'you are forgotten' was a way to reference remembering one's mortality, one's temporality and finitude."
On the phone, Thorburn asks if I hate the record. I don't, but it is growing on me more gradually than the last record (Thorburn jokes that his plan is, in fact, for each record to take longer and longer to catch on). Arm's Way isn't Islands' sophomore slump exactly, but it is the sound of the band settling—not as in compromising, but as a house into its foundations. Their confidence and comfort borders on overconfidence. The more common rock arrangements feel too easy. One worries that in bringing the whole band together, something of Thorburn's appealingly weirdo sensibility is being lost.