In 2016, Island’s frontman and songwriter Nicholas Thorburn decided that he had enough of the band. Original collaborator Jamie Thompson had left a number of years before, and the second main incarnation, featuring brothers Evan and Geordie George, were steady and consistently talented, but admittedly less spontaneous and exciting. The group had run its course, and Thorburn, ever the restless artist, decided to explore new avenues.
Then, Thorburn had amassed a number of songs that couldn’t be released by any of his numerous other projects. This collection could only be realised by one band. So the Gordon brothers were called back in, along with drummer Adam Halferty, to record Islomania. The album is in a prime position to kickstart the Islands comeback that the world wasn’t expecting to happen. Surely this is a resurrection effort that will go down as a monumental return, right?
Instead of a celebratory return, the material we get on Islomania is a little more puzzling considering the context. These are the songs that so inspired Thorburn the he had to raise his dormant band back from the dead?
It’s not like the material is especially poor. ‘(We Like To) Do It With The Lights On’ is goofy, catchy fun, with plenty of bouncy disco bass and delightfully horny energy. ‘Closed Captioning’ is the same, with references to mediums and deja vu. Never ones to take themselves overly seriously, Islands keep the party going even as they begin to repeat topics and styles.
But the party doesn’t last. It’s not like Thorburn and co. don’t try to keep it going, though. ‘A Passionate Age’ has some killer Nile Rodgers-esque guitar work and wonky vocoder vocal lines, while ‘Natural Law Party’ has some awesome honking horn lines. The arrangements on Islomania occasionally transcend their direct influences to create something altogether new and exciting, but the rarity of these occurrences often result in a certain disappointing and fleeting aspect to most of Islomania.
You could realistically rearrange every single track in a different order and still come away with more or less the same experience. There’s cohesion, but the album lacks a solid flow, drive, or sense of purposefulness.
From what I can hear, Thorburn is mainly preoccupied with love and dancing when it comes to the lyrical composition of Islomania. That’s not a bad road to go down, considering that some of the best songs were written about one, or both, of those topics. The lack of depth could be conceived as a deliberate artistic choice, but I don’t know if I want to give Thorburn that much credit. He has the ability to be a great songwriter, but the content he decides to hone in on here doesn’t do anything to elevate him or the band beyond anyone else in the greater pop music landscape.
By the time the last notes of ‘Gore’, the album’s closing track, fade away back into the musical ether, what’s left is a well-produced, well-performed, solidly conceived, catchy, perfectly fine indie-pop album. The real question is: was Islomania worth the over five-year wait? The reality is that the album is light and relatively carefree, but there’s a certain slightness to the proceedings that make it hard to truly fall in love with.
There’s nothing egregious on Islomania, but there’s nothing challenging either. If you want to turn off your brain for about 40 minutes, there are plenty of worse options to turn to. What I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around is the way that the band appears to be evolving through their now nearly two decade career. The loopy rhythms and playful energy of previously albums Return to the Sea, Vapours, and Ski Mask have been supplemented by generic, inoffensive pop. What remains is a band that’s far blander than their initial incarnation, one that sounds like it’s no longer appealing to the freaks and weirdos of the world and instead are moving closer to the middle of the road.
A triumphant world-conquering album this is not. But if you don’t ask too much of it, Islomania can still be a pretty good time. Not every party will be worth the hassle, but it’s still good to get yourself back out there. If that’s what Thorburn is trying to communicate, then it’s a job well done.