Nick Thorburn can’t seem to catch a break. Although he gained a great deal of popularity with indie pop group the Unicorns, they released all of one studio album (Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?) in 2003 before splitting. Despite a litany of musical projects since this time, including five releases as the frontman of the band Islands, the cult status of the Unicorns means that everything since has been compared to Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? In a similar vein, the first Islands album, Return to the Sea, was widely acclaimed and every subsequent album was compared to this 2006 debut. However, lest you think Thorburn’s heyday was around a decade ago, his most widely heard work would come out in 2014 in the form of the soundtrack to the hit podcast Serial. The only problem here was that few would make the connection between Serial’s background music and Thorburn’s other projects, keeping his popularity contained to existing Unicorns and Islands fans.
When the new Islands album Should I Remain Here at Sea? was announced as a “spiritual sequel” to Return to the Sea, perhaps Thorburn was attempting to relive those halcyon days, much like bands that go on tours promising to play only their most recognized albums in their entirety. More surprising was the news that a second album, Taste, would be released the same day, this one promising a more electronic sound that Islands had previously experimented with on third album Vapours. Despite Thorburn’s insistence that “this is not a double album – these are two distinct, entirely unrelated records,” it’s awfully tempting to examine both at once as other reviews have done.
Although Should I Remain Here at Sea? was billed as a “spiritual sequel” to Return to the Sea, the emphasis should be more on the “spiritual” than the “sequel” part. Both albums feature tracks recorded in a single take and have a “raw” feeling to them, but the actual musical output is quite different. Should I Remain Here at Sea? is full of simple, brief pop songs driven by guitar and drums, not too far off from what made the Unicorns popular. Return to the Sea, on the other hand, featured strings, piano, synthesizer and steel drum. And while it contained some simple pop songs, like “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby,” it also opened with a nine and a half minute long track and featured one song with a rap interlude. There is the occasional lyrical callback between albums (like “I woke up late the day I died”), but those hoping for another Return to the Sea should start accepting that Islands’ second album, Arm’s Way, was the best they’re going to get.
Taste meanwhile was advertised as “buoyed by drum machines, programming and vintage synths.” As mentioned previously, Islands attempted this with their catchy third album Vapours, so it’s not entirely uncharted territory for the band. Lesser known is that Thorburn released a solo synthpop album, City of Quartz, last year under his alter-ego “Nick Diamonds,” which had some great standout tracks. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Taste shows a band that knows their way around an electronic release, and is arguably the more cohesive of the two albums.
Since the last two Islands albums Ski Mask and A Sleep & A Forgetting were both fairly varied in their instrumentation, the division between Should I Remain Here at Sea? and Taste comes off as being fairly arbitrary. Even more arbitrary is that the first half of Should I Remain Here at Sea? is reserved for lively rock songs while the second half is full of gloomy ballads. This latter part isn’t necessarily bad, but is overshadowed by the energy in the first batch of tracks like “Innocent Man” and “Fiction.” And as Islands tend to do, this sunniness conceals darker lyrics like “tell me how much I get for biting my tongue/I kept my mouth shut but still I got stung” on the excellent opener “Back Into It.”
Despite Taste’s electronic stylings, many of its songs are on more on tempo with the second half of Should I Remain Here at Sea?, with slower drum machine beats beneath layers of synthesizer melodies. However, these tracks feel less like ballads than a decaffeinated version of Vapours, particularly on “No Milk, No Sugar” and “Outspoken Dirtbiker.” Taste also lacks arbitrary thematic halves, as livelier moments are interspersed throughout like “The Joke,” “The Weekend” and “Snowflake.” The extra attention paid to Taste also seems to have rewarded it with the better lyrics, like “over at company, we love misery” on “Carried Away.”
When listening to Taste it may be tempting to notice the occasional electric guitars and think “Hey! That’s a rock instrument! That belongs on the other album!” Likewise, Should I Remain Here at Sea? closes with the electronic-heavy “At Sea.” This may be nitpicking as the band likely intended the recording process to be the real divider between the albums, but there is a great deal of crossover between the two, particularly when noting how often the lyrics on both mention loss. Likewise, both are overall solid releases taken as whole albums but have only a few standout tracks between them. Monotony occasionally takes over on Taste’s pulsating rhythms and Should I Remain Here at Sea?’s dreary second half, making it easy to gloss over both unless you’re actively listening. Yet there are multiple moments of brilliance on both albums that makes such astute listening worthwhile.