If you didn’t know the story behind A Sleep & A Forgetting, last Friday’s Free At Noon show might have left you wondering, “What happened to Islands?” The answer is that front man Nick Thorburn broke up with his long time partner, moved from New York to LA and, heartbroken, started writing the album on Valentine’s Day of last year. Released a year later, (on Valentine’s Day, appropriately) A Sleep & A Forgetting is a mellow, beach-rock handling of heartbreak and the moving-on process. And crying. Lots and lots of crying.
It seems that most songs on the album discuss crying, from opening tracks “In A Dream It Seemed Real” (“Even in the dream I cried”) and “This Is Not A Song” (“Feels a crime to be crying for this long”) to “No Crying” (no explanation necessary) and “Lonely Love” (“I heard you cry, cry”). A few songs talk about sorrow without outright discussing tears, including a tribute to Buddy Holly’s widow titled “Oh Maria,” and “Can’t Feel My Face,” which begins, “I miss my wife / I miss my best friend / Every night / I miss my home.” To top it off, the album was co-produced by Rob Schnapf, who famously worked with Elliott Smith. From content to context, this album should be depressing. Thankfully, Thorburn’s pop-rock weirdness wasn’t lost when he “lost [his] love”—a line from “Can’t Feel My Face.” The album, for all its sorrow, is an enjoyable listen and perhaps one of Thorburn’s best albums to date.
Though Thorburn has openly stated that this confessional album was inspired by his break-up, he remains as unpredictable as ever. Across the many bands and projects he’s written for—which include The Unicorns, Human Highway, Mister Heavenly, solo work under the name Nick Diamonds, guest work on Les Savy Fav’s Let’s Stay Friends, and Islands—Thorburn never uses the same style twice. Even within a single project, such as Islands, his sound varies enormously from album to album and from song to song. If listeners expected a Thorburn break-up album to be morose, then they expected him to be conventional, which is possibly the only thing he hasn’t tried yet.
A Sleep & A Forgetting has low moments, but they are balanced out by the buoyancy of the album’s delivery, a sound the group describes as “doom wop.” The result is reminiscent of The Kooks’ first album or of The Drums. It’s sad Beach Boys with a sprinkle of electronic experimentation and flourishes of jazz. Another surprising result of the beach-rock/break-up combo is the consistency across A Sleep & A Forgetting. Unlike Islands’ previous disparate albums, at 37 minutes, this is a short full-length composed of 11 brief songs: a record where every track adds to the story that it tells. A Sleep & A Forgetting is a tragic story, but it sounds fresh rather than raw, teeming with life instead of harping on the death of a relationship. A testament to the album’s duality is the way Thorburn performed it– dancing and shaking a tambourine during, of all songs, “Can’t Feel My Face.” His moves seemed a bit forced, but we’ll give him time. After all, Valentine’s Day was only a couple of weeks ago. –Naomi Shavin
1. In A Dream It Seemed Real
2. Lonely Love
3. Cold Again
4. This Is Not A Song
6. No Crying
7. Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby
8. Can’t Feel My Face
1. Switched On