Nick Thorburn, leader of Islands and co-founder of the now deceased Unicorns outfit, is my favorite young songwriter. His 2009 LP, Vapours, is my favorite record of 2011, and the more I play it, the more I love it. In the world of indie rock, Islands is big but have yet to transcend the “scene,” whatever that is. It’s a shame because Thorburn and his gang should all be big pop stars. He’s watched groups like Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend achieve mainstream success and cultural breakthroughs when he knows he is just as good, if not superior. He’s jealous, and he’s justified. Take a look at this clip where he tears into Vampire Weekend with dry sardonic viciousness.
That sort of mini diatribe might turn a lot of people off, but to me, that’s the exact attitude I’m looking for in a budding rock star. First of all, he is intelligent, capable of talking about the complexity of the creative process in an old familiar way. Second, he is full of jealousy, which to me, is really just a mask for his brimming ambition. He’s made a lot of great music, but clearly won’t be satisfied until he breaks through to the next level. Third, he’s right. If the world was fair, his level of fame, and Vampire Weekend’s level of fame would be reversed. I know he didn’t say that exactly, but it’s pretty easy to infer.
Anyway, I think Nick Thorburn is the tops, clearly, as I am defending his (righteous) narcissism, but onto this record of his, Vapours. The album is a response to the critics who lambasted his second record Arm’s Way. Now, if you must know what I thought of Arm’s Way, I’ll say that it was a bit of a misfire, but an awesome misfire, from a songwriters perspective. He just went all out, emotionally speaking, allowing his muse to take him to some dark and ugly places. He made no apologies for his art. It wasn’t a record meant to capitalize on any trend, or continue the formula of fun quirky songs he had been perfecting with the Unicorns and with his first Islands record. It was just a record where Nick was exploring his limits and his creativity with messy and mixed results. One good result with this tune below, “Creeper.” What a fantastic piece of catchy paranoid pop this cut is, very much in the vein of Bad era Michael Jackson.
So, despite the awesomeness of songs like “Creeper,”Arm’s Way was hated, and it really derailed all the positive attention and press Nick had been building for himself up to that point. When he sat down to make his new LP he told pitchfork (his most vocal critic), “I needed to withdraw from overblown metaphors and filling every possible sonic space. So this record is just made up of sequenced programming, synths, drum machines, guitars, and real bass. And an electric sitar.” Well, not only did he achieve in scaling back the sonic density of his songs, he made an absolute classic pop album. Here is my track by track run down.
“Switched On” – To get it out of the way, this is a glorious pop song, featuring an incredible light pounding rhythm, a gorgeous melody, perfect chorus, and beautiful harmonies. The thing that makes me crazy in love with the song are the lyrics. “I’ve put on, something you can’t switch off….on!” The song is about just being in love with New York City, and how going around the city just brings him to life…I think. If you’re reading this Nick, I’d love to interview you, and dissect each song with you to get their proper meaning and inspiration.
“No You Don’t” – This song, to me, is another example of the raw talent Nick Thorburn has at writing catchy pop songs. The melody, the drums, and the snyths are put together perfectly. Nick is simply a natural hook master like Bob Marley or Paul McCartney. Heady company I know, but he really is that good. The video below features fellow Canadian Michael Cera descending into a full on drug frenzy, very appropriate as it both subverts and builds on Cera’s Scott Pilgrim role.
“Vapours” – The album’s title track, and another winner. The first three songs of this records are all classics, a good way to start any album. Lyrically it’s a song that’s a thinly veiled stab at his critics, basically saying that if you want catchy, breezy, pop, here you go. He also seems to be saying that he embodies this kind of music, and it comes as natural to him as breathing. It’s just a nice touch of bitterness underneath the glossy shell of perfect disco rock pop.
“Devout” – A steadily unwinding dark piece of dance rock. The song unfolds with masterful drama until it reaches it’s epiphany with the “sold you out..you were so devout” breakdown. It’s a great pop music moment, and the song ends right when it should.
“Disarming the Car Bomb” – Another gem. What can I say. I’m running out of superlatives real quick. This song starts off with booming Michael Jackson like drums, and one of the catchiest guitar lines on the record. Lyrically, it’s just a funny story about a guy lamenting the bad instructions he was given on disarming a car bomb, from the afterlife. My favorite moment is right after the Beatle-esque guitar solo when he moans, “Ohhhhh! I cut the wire like you said, I cut the blue one like you did, I did almost everything you said, so how come I’m dead?” Genius.
“Tender Torture” – My favorite song on the album. I covered the song on my website already here, (it’s the 3rd most played song on my iPod,) but of course I got some more to say about it. This is one of the best breakup songs I’ve ever heard, and unlike most mopey breakup songs, this is the most life affirming pulsating pieces of guitar techno pop ever constructed. This was the track that unlocked my love for the whole record, and I hope it does the same for you.
“Shining” – Continuing the dark themes from “Devout,” “Shining” is probably my least favorite song on the LP, which doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I love the way the hook in the chorus resolves itself with such strange lyrics. It’s a good song, but maybe its just repeats itself one more time then it should.
“On Foreigner” - After a slight lull, Nick shoots the band right back to the top with another masterpiece. This song features the record’s prettiest harmonies. The chorus, verses, and bridges are all unique, melodically, and the song just surprises you with its catchiness and beauty at every turn.
“Heartbeat” – More of a techno ballad, and its really, really good. The song becomes really thrilling at the one minute mark when the drumming goes military, and all the subtle elements of the song start to come together perfectly. With the line “Load up the major 3rd, but you don’t know if that’s what you’ve heard,” it’s clear that this is another exploration into the bitterness he feels about his own songwriting talent, and those who would judge him. This song is also another example of how he scaled back his tendency to overload a song with heavy production, and the song is better served because of it.
“The Drums” – This song is either just a literal description of drums, and drumming, or its a metaphor for God knows what. Either way, its a good song. Not my favorite on the record, but not the worst. I love the sort of mad chorus where he crazily sings, “THE DRUMS, THE DRUMS,” like a mental patient losing his mind in a psyche ward.
“EOL” – I have no idea what EOL stands for, but the song is awesome. Nick loves writing songs about death, and dying, and this one is about buildings crashing on him and his brother. At this point in the record, the hooks and choruses are just coming really effortlessly. I love the way the song can either breeze into another verse or another thrilling chorus. My favorite line in the song is, “The endlessness of lines, broken like twine, drawn across time, in a pointless line.” Good psychedelic stuff there.
“Everything is Under Control” – An absolute perfect closing song. In an album filled with sensations of rising, floating, flying, and beauty, this song combines all these elements into a bizarrely authoritative declaration of self mastery and control. The song starts off rather cloyingly with airy falsetto lyrics that are easy to dismiss until Nick comes down and proclaims “I’m in control,” with breathtakingly dreamy self-assurance.
In closing, it’s probably apparent that I mainly wrote this article as a tribute and not really a review. Vapours has simply been the most inspirational album I’ve heard in a long time, influencing my own songwriting heavily over the last year. I am anxiously awaiting Nick Thorburn’s next record, whether that be with Islands, or with anybody else. I really think this guy is a genius and will have his moment in the sun, as I’m certain he is capable of writing a song that will become an international smash hit. It’s only a matter of time.