Islands: “Arm’s Way”
A disembodied arm ominously appears to collect the soul out of a “lifeless carcass” that died in a “badass car crash.” In the hands of a no-talent hack, it’s ripe for B-movie horror kitsch-or a Stephen King novel. In the hands of an artist like Nick Thorburn, it’s the ringing opening act of Arm’s Way, an album that’s as darkly comical and compellingly strange as its first song suggests.
Thorburn’s latest band-Islands-have only made two albums, and already they’re at the peak of their powers. If Return to the Sea set the stage with its genre-hopping eclecticism and its weird, simultaneously touching and jokey songwriting, the punnily-titled Arm’s Way both narrows the focus and expands the scope of the Islands’ craft, finding them honing their craft with more nuance and complexity even as they broaden their ambitions for an album that’s even more sweeping in scope and broadly all-encompassing in its songwriting as their debut.
In many ways, it’s ringleader Nick Thorburn at his most unabashedly indulgent-which isn’t a bad thing. It’s not that the album drifts into excess, though there’s certainly a lot going on here; rather, it’s that the album is a joyful celebration of everything Thorburn’s music has always been about, a 70-minute outpouring of white-hot electric guitar wankery, classic rock riffs, elephant-sized pop hooks, complex and convoluted song structures, dense wordplay and complex symbolism, and enough symphonic flourishes and vocal harmonies for a dozen 60s pop revival bands.
And “symphonic” is certainly the word for it; Thorburn has a flair for drama, as he demonstrates on closing numbers “I Feel Evil Creeping In” and “Vertigo,” and, as visceral and hard-hitting as this music is, it bears the marks of a careful craftsman who labored over the texture and the little details of every song here, filling each nook and cranny with little flourishes of strings, densely packing the album with a sonic richness that leaves new things to discover every time you listen but never forgetting that this is a guitar-rock album first and foremost, and that, more than anything, it has to hit on a gut level, which is certainly does.
The lyrics, too, are quintessential Thorburn; as always, he’s obsessed with death, but never at the expense of his good humor. His writing here is funny, complicated, touching, and quirky-the work of a man who writes songs grounded in personal details, but who knows enough about the craft of writing that he makes them universal. It’s perhaps the most pleasurable album about death you’ll ever hear, a flood of words and images, puns and symbols, that leaves you hanging on his every word. And there’s a strange metaphysical-one is almost inclined to say theological-awareness, too, as Thorburn links death to evil, even ending the album with a pair of startlingly direct admissions of wrongdoing.
And how does Thorburn manage to cram so much into a single record? Why, by making it a prog-rock opus, of course! Though tempo-wise the album moves at a breakneck speed for most of its duration, Thorburn and his bandmates allow the songs to stretch out far beyond the duration of a typical pop song, allowing all of their brainy ideas to unfold naturally. These songs take crazy twists and hairpin turns and go places you’d never expect them to, then somehow manage to come back around to the very place they started. Witness how “J’aime Vous Voire Quitter” begins with a sloppy guitar riff and primitive percussion that signals a punk song, eventually gives way to a weird, ethnically-charged Mariachi breakdown. “In the Rushes” and “To a Bond”-both clocking in at over seven minutes-are genuine multi-part prog-rock songs. Elsewhere, Thorburn shows off his love for the guitar heroics of indie rock on shorter, more tightly-wound numbers like “Abominable Snow,” and makes no effort to hide his shameless love for pop hooks on the dance-worthy first single, “Creeper.” Of course, pacing and sequencing are key for keeping this kind of album interesting, and Islands have given this record an organic flow that makes it difficult to stop the album before it runs its course; the pacing is thrown off a bit toward the ending, when Thorburn succumbs to Return of the King disorder, concluding the album with multiple songs that feel like big finishes, but that’s half the fun, as even these songs are so packed with fun ideas and big hooks that it’s hard to imagine the album without them.
Indeed, what keeps the album from growing tedious due to its indulgence and its sprawl is the fact that, above all, Thorburn is a pop songwriter, and hooks always come first. Indeed, there may not be a rock album released all year that tops this one in terms of killer, catchy hooks. That’s Thorburn’s genius: Arm’s Way is an album overflowing with ideas, but it’s also rife with melody, and that makes it a compulsive, addictive listen.