Return to the Sea
he current coterie of trendy indie-pop bands from Canada has done a masterful job of lyrical misdirection, their cheerfully egalitarian arrangements and occasional whiffs of pan-cultural mélange effectively masking dark or desperate subject matter. For the Arcade Fire, brim-filling orchestration covers up Win Butler’s regression into childhood fears and haunts, while Broken Social Scene’s multilayered symphonies often swallow whole their sometimes-seedy and strung-out syntax.
Montreal’s Islands is another maple flag outfit that turns the normally-symbiotic relationship between words and sound into an elaborate shell game. Rising from the ashes of the similarly twee Unicorns, Islands makes sweetly sun-kissed indie-pop that’s notably precious and fuzzy-feeling even next to the typical buoyancy of their neighbors up north. The remarkably involving nine-minute opener to their debut album, “Swans (Life After Death),” features a few actually fierce guitar licks and some rare full-on rocking, but it’s the exception to the rule of chirpy pop confections like “Volcanoes,” “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone” and the brilliantly if confoundingly-titled “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby.” The cuteness factor reaches its apex with the irresistible “Jogging Gorgeous Summer,” a lightly-spritzing calypso-flavored ditty that would fit perfectly in a Disney film, soundtracking a scene where tiny woodland creatures bustle hither and fro.
Then again, these hypothetical chipmunks and bunny rabbits might be more akin to the Satan-worshipping critters in that emotionally-scarring South Park episode from last year. That’s because the sugar Islands spins out in the music turns to poison when they speak. No, it’s not Necro or G.G. Allin, but it’s still noticeably discomfiting to try and blithely sing along to some of these less-than-snuggly lyrics. Sometimes it’s just a line or two that hints at chaos—“I woke up thirsty the day I died” from “Swans” or the destructive imagery of “Volcanoes,” where “a hot rainfall made of magma melts Alaska.” “Human” ratchets up the tension with its rhetoric of resistance and struggle (“Should we mobilize / Take them by surprise”) while the aforementioned “Whitney” might be about anorexia, maybe Whitney’s herself (“bones bones brittle little bones”…“did you eat?”). Ultimately, however, it’s “If” and “Whalebone” where the disconnect is most obvious, the former a subtly despairing song suggesting fatal attraction, with lead singer Nick Diamonds gently threatening “if you don’t savor me / I’ll salt you make you savory,” while the latter finds him guarding a “tropical hideout” with tyrannical aggression, vowing “if anyone finds out I’ll put their lights out.”
Disbanding a group named after a mythical creature and then forming one called Islands invites an avalanche of armchair psychoanalysis. Actual islands are very much physically real (though typically equated with paradise and recreational bliss), but they’re also synonymous with separateness as well, ostensibly self-sustaining and inevitably standing alone. The band Islands embodies every aspect of that loaded referent, capturing the hazy allure of islands with their knee-weakening melodies, but also transmitting some of the insulated hostility inherent in those land masses with their suspiciously standoffish lyrics. Return to the Sea could have just been another pleasantly innocuous record from an indie-pop act with a few legitimate flaws (namely, they lack kissing cousin Of Montreal’s intimate understanding of dance and funk), but thanks to some subtly disquieting diction it’s almost as disturbingly memorable as a cuddly cartoon blood orgy.