Montreal’s Nick Thorburn, also know as Nick Diamonds, seems dead set on becoming the mad prince of indie pop. His tastes are widespread, his talents immense, and his sense of humor borders on maniacal. Thorburn’s first project, the Unicorns, served up jagged jewels of melodic intensity in rapid succession, often skipping across multiple musical worlds in the course of a single song; the precociously magisterial and death-obsessed LP Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? was one of 2003’s best, ending with the jokingly ominous lyric: “I’ve said my goodbyes and now I’m ready to die (cough cough).” After the group’s premature (some might say inevitable) implosion in 2005, Thorburn tried his hand at hip-hop production as Th’ Corn Gangg, working with rappers Subtitle and Busdriver as well as remixing “Emergency Exit” for Beck’s Guerolito.
True apotheosis, though, came with the release of Return to the Sea, the debut album by Islands, which can be legitimately viewed as an evolutionary descendant to the Unicorns. The album refitted Thorburn’s hooks to longer, more recognizable song structures and expanded the Unicorns’s sound with fuller, funkier orchestration. Lyrically, Thorburn pushed his characters into deep ocean waters, round the rims of volcanoes, and down African mines chasing diamond loot. It was a serious turn for an artist previously known for snotty quirkiness, and Thorburn’s pre-release comment that the album was inspired by Paul Simon’s Graceland indicated a bid for respect well before the collegians in Vampire Weekend began proclaiming the return of “Upper West Side Soweto.”
Islands’s latest, Arm’s Way, continues the adventure in a darker and more assured mode. Images of car crashes, rabid wolves and shit-eating gnomes with human bones decorating their walls dance to an accompaniment of violin and cello runs, indie guitar riffage and pulverizing drum play. There were quiet, delicate moments on Return to the Sea; those have been largely jettisoned from Arm’s Way, which thinks epic on everything from song length (with three songs longer than seven minutes and a total runtime of over an hour) to the album cover (the suburban-psychedelic montage is best understood, or misunderstood, at full resolution).
Arm’s Way‘s first quarter really wallops, with dazzling hooks and waves of textured rhythms. The opening trio of “The Arm,” “Pieces of You” and “J’aime Vous Voir Quitter” blaze by with breathless abandon: Thorburn wails charmingly macabre lines (“The veins made some stains when they burst from your legs/Your anxiety is a tapestry,” from “The Arms,” stands out in particular, but such lyrical richness pervades) against choruses of bubbling bass clarinet notes and twittering keyboards, and each song seems to be built of mellifluously interrelated bridges. “Abominable Snow,” a song played by the Unicorns near the end of their existence, unfolds a rollicking narrative of Sasquatch-hunting and moon exploration. “Creeper” revisits the quasi-dance rhythms of Th’ Corn Gangg, albeit with a horror movie conceit. This introductory section alone should put Arm’s Way on best-of-2008 lists. Thorburn has pushed off from the reckless beauty of his earlier efforts to the accessible upper echelon of Canadian indie heroes—an undefined, unclaimed spot somewhere between the New Pornographers and Arcade Fire.
As Arm’s Way progresses, the ambition gets larger and the songs get longer. It would be easy to turn back to the more welcoming climes of that first quintet of songs, and plenty of listeners will, but quite a booty awaits those who brave the more indulgent waters of the album’s latter portions. “Life in the Rushes” lumbers for five minutes, spindling intricate guitar and string patterns before quite unexpectedly diving into a barreling quotation of the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away.” Later, Islands monkeys around with stirring pop balladry on “To a Bond,” sounding as if “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”-era Aerosmith passed through a portal into twisted, art-school teenagerhood. Album closer “Vertigo (If It’s a Crime)” features the record’s best melody, a ruminative strummer about a murderer’s guilt, before crescendoing into a proggish, six-minute-long coda that, though it will probably bore most listeners at first, will certainly wow them when they hear it played live.
As a fully realized, bombastically confident artistic statement, Arm’s Way is Nick Thorburn’s 69 Love Songs. Hereafter we will only seek to understand him according to his own pop- and violence-addled logic, mapped perfectly on this thrilling album.—>