‘Ski’ Slope Toward Acceptance
Islands mastermind Nicholas Thorburn—marking a year’s distance from his confessional post-divorce album, A Sleep & A Forgetting—is feeling kind of spry again. Islands’ latest LP, the often lovable Ski Mask, has a wicked twinkle in its eye not unlike the schlock monster on its album cover—and there’s a sense that, suggestive of the Kübler-Ross “five stages of grief,” Thorburn is well on his way to acceptance.
For instance, opener “Wave Forms”—gushing with babbling drums, pointilistic strings and a dodo-stupid marimba synth—evokes both closure and newness. “The water’s calm / And I am moving on,” finishes the cautiously well-adjusted chorus. Transcendent and aqueous, it comes across like a singer–songwriter’s reimagining of The Little Mermaid soundtrack.
In Ski Mask, you’ll find the theme of acceptance, and a wrestling therewith, more than once. “Death Drive” is a cactus blossom of spiny, succulent sounds, rattling off like the “shoulda, coulda, woulda” monologue you refine and recite to yourself from Tucson to Vegas. “Becoming the Gunship,” with its bellicose imagery, is about impaired and impairing love. Sings Thorburn: “When it was dark / I was a question mark / Becoming the gunship”—in effect making literal the old saw, “All’s fair in love and war,” even so much as to conflate the two.
Even newfound love is suggested in “Hushed Tones,” which may feature full-on ’80s pop instrumentation—including a passage of synth-classical noodles not heard since “When Doves Cry”—yet Thorburn’s heart and voice seem to stem from an earlier time. In fact, despite the Breakfast Club-ready drum machine and a pecking guitar line ostensibly guested by Bernard Sumner, Thorburn’s croon of “My own / Hush tones” bends with a twee, mid-century melisma. (Think Buddy Holly or the mawkish rectitude of a barbershop quartet).
A credit to Islands, these anachronisms can again be found in “Sad Middle,” a title that may well describe the song’s nexus of ’80s Casios and lonesome cowboy cues. It stalks with a horse-clopping rhythm, uncommon asides and a torchlit, blood-and-thunder piano. The result is impossible—almost like the Buggles covering Gene Autry—and that, here and throughout, is the strangely playful, break-in force of Ski Mask: Behind its gawky and benign livery, you’ll find an irreverent, almost law-flouting genius. Indeed, Thorburn’s acceptance may still be in progress, but ours of Ski Mask is a no-brainer.