Islands Sail into the Sunset on 'What Occurs'

BY Vish KhannaPublished Jun 26, 2024


There's a sense of finality floating on the sun-warmed waters of What Occurs, the tenth album by Islands, the near two-decade-old brainchild of ingenious pop songwriter Nick Thorburn. Returning to his home province of British Columbia to make a live-off-the-floor record with people facing each other in a room and exploring their instinctual, creative impulses, Thorburn seems to be signalling his unique musical voyage has perhaps come full circle.

After breaking through with his Montreal-based collaborative band the Unicorns, Thorburn seemed undaunted by its dissolution in 2004, diving headlong into Islands and becoming its lead songwriter and driving force a year later. Islands has had different configurations, not least because Thorburn has lived in Montreal, Brooklyn and his current home in Los Angeles, necessitating new collaborators.

Talented multi-instrumentalists Evan and Geordie Gordon joined the band in 2009. Four years later, drummer Adam Halferty entered the fold and Islands became a steady hub for both in-person and remote collaboration, with Thorburn writing and recording demos and sharing them accordingly.

After a six-year gap between records, Islands returned with 2021's Islomania, which was festive in its own way, representing a free-for-all party for a human race unbothered by the world's end. Its prompt follow-up, 2023's And That's Why Dolphins Lost Their Legs, felt connected to its predecessor, with a "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" hangover vibe. At the time, Thorburn intimated that a trilogy was at play, with a planned third installment representing a post-apocalyptic landscape. Much like Bruce Springsteen's town, there's a darkness on the edge of Islands.

What Occurs doesn't exactly reflect a bombed-out planet but, for its maker and his characters, its catchy-ass hooks and melodies do belie a kind of resignation that the world is weird, tough, great and sadly, still running on a finite timeline. Thorburn has long been a charmingly sardonic writer who observes human behaviour and occasionally just stares at some of us, wondering how we can possibly share the same air.

"Everybody bracing for a real Armageddon," he sings on the title track, "But what occurs will only do your head in / Left behind, and they want you to believe / That what occurs was always meant to be." It's a matter of fact and relatively gentle rebuke of religious justifications for letting people die on a burning planet instead of, y'know, doing stuff to try and prevent all of that from happening. A similar note is struck with "On the Internet," which suggests that technology has us so disaffected, it can feel like we're watching our lives unfold more than living them.      

"Tangerine" is a fun love song, which ends with a similar feel to "Judy Is a Punk" by Ramones, but like "Arachnophobia," it amusingly delves into the paranoia and humiliation that can be part of letting someone else know what's in your heart. There's nefarious bite to edgy pieces like "Boll Weevil" and the poetic, narrative exercise that is "David Geffen's Jackson Pollack" and its counterpart "Hang," which meditate on creation and devaluation in a strained time for a fraying cultural realm.    

Maybe it's Thorburn paraphrasing John Lennon when he sings "I was dreaming of the past before you met me," but "A Void" and "Sally Doesn't Live Here Anymore" each share the voice of someone who's dangerously close to looking up old flames or would-be lovers on social media to explore missed or lost interpersonal opportunities. When, in "A Void," Thorburn sings "One day we may slip away unnoticed / But right before we'll linger there all day / Time it creeps up quick on us I know this / But my love for you still keeps me hanging on," it's so sincerely tender, somewhere in the mix, you can hear his regretful heart breaking.

And in the end, we have "The End," a rollicking autobiographical song in which Thorburn repeatedly asks, "What do you do?" It doesn't sound like a rhetorical question; it's a genuine query from someone who has poured his life into Islands for almost 20 years and, after 10 albums, isn't sure what, if anything, is next.

To over-romanticize things, there's something striking in Thorburn's decision to return to his place of origin, where he first began exploring music-making as a kid, and, with his experience and wisdom in tow, recreate that sense of creative discovery by trusting the moment and people's fresh ideas. But the feel and sound, born of in-person collaboration and brainstorming, is also ripe with artistic rejuvenation and excitement in the face of apathy, indifference and yes, some evil in the world.

While we're better off with Islands around, if What Occurs finds them sailing off into the sunset, the whole excursion was a wonderful and inspiring one.

(ELF Records)

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