Return to the Sea

(Equator; 2006)

By Conrad Amenta | 21 February 2008

Taking in the general lay of the land, it’s thought that Islands could be staid where Unicorns were buffoons, or Islands adult where Unicorns adolescent. Islands could be emotional where Unicorns were noncommittal, or honest where kitsch. Measured where brazen, cautiously explorative where freewheeling, global where get the point. But since Unicorns only got one album into the credibility hedge maze, to which Return to the Sea (featuring two of three ex-Unicorns, minus co-songwriter Penner) could very well have been the follow up, who knows? Yesterday’s Unicorns hype is well on its way to the cobwebbed bargain bin, their raison d’être still unclear at best. “Fuck what you heard / you were lied to,” songwriter Nick Diamonds suggests, between choruses of, “bones, bones / brittle little bones.” The excavation at hand is not a triumphant revitalization of past write-ups, but a dismissal of what may as well be artifact viewed with eyes looking forward to Islands’ 2027 reunion tour through the smoking ruins of New Montreal. Unicorns are gone, their too-cool-to-act-cool routine with it. Islands are here, newfound confidence and vision written all over Return to the Sea’s multifaceted and engaging spin, and if the album is anything, it’s a declaration that Islands are here to stay where Unicorns are gone.

Any review concerning the efforts of men known largely for their Merry Prankster brand of musical hucksterism is going to refer chiefly to semi-reliable aspects like mood and style, and to that degree Islands is a second cousin removed from Unicorns. On that premise, Return is best identified by nine and-a-half minute opener “Swans (Life After Death)” (brackets!) and album centerpiece “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone.” Those two tracks, more than any other on Return, testify that if Islands aims to be a building on the metaphorical Montreal cityscape, it’ll be an abandoned church with buttresses on scale with the Arcade Fire’s, though less haunted by the ghosts of dead relatives than made alive with the sounds of drunken bands using its basement as a jam space. Camus to Arcade Fire’s Sartre, the post-apocalyptic carnivalesque of “Humans,” Elephant 6 pop of “Rough Gem” and declarative but comfortably confident style of “Swans” are facsimiles of their city brethren’s theatrical indie-zine headshots, but with moustaches and eyebrows like a V drawn on, each song wielding slightly twisted melodrama as biting as an ax with a pink ribbon tied around its handle. This isn’t the kind of thing you’ll be able to tell by flicking through the first two minutes of each song: at 4:30 of “Swans,” for example, the simple progression and steady momentum established throughout the song’s first minutes blossoms into a honeyed guitar melody. It may seem simple or irrelevant, but it’s newly discovered territory, the sound of entirely new doors swinging open for Diamonds into a centrality and focus that was lacking on previous songwriting efforts from Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? and proof that writing seriously doesn’t necessarily mean having to write serious material.

Take “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone,” featuring a minor key rare for the album and a sometimes sluggish, sometimes inspired, rap breakdown that evokes “separatist homicide.” These are loaded words for a Quebec (even Quebec by way of British Columbia) band, but they’re turned on their side by the absurdity of contrapuntal mediums and that the band is obviously having fun. In the song’s verses, where Diamonds is “laying low in a tropical hideout,” and he states, “if anyone finds out / I’ll turn their lights out,” it’s again unclear whether Islands is Unicorns become deadly serious, or mock posture to be appreciated with tongue planted firmly in cheek. It’s also unclear if the listener is intended to admire the song’s rap segment on the principles of musical exploration (longer than the blink-and-you’ll–miss it novelty of K-OS appearing in a Broken Social Scene song), dismiss it as fucking around, or realize the choice is a false dichotomy not nearly complex enough to encompass trickster musicianship. Tellingly, the rain of magma in “Volcanoes” defers to metamorphosis through destruction, stating first “I’m so afraid to die,” only to defer to “something glowing / it was growing / things are going to change.” Together with a rasped assertion by “Oscar” at the song’s beginning that “the world is going to end in 2007,” the thematic overtones are both cathartic and absurd: leaden pronouncements laid over jamborees and apocalyptic grumblings in funny voices that bear witness to the big, cosmic joke that sometimes you can find meaning only when you let go of it. The irony is that Islands’ realization stands arms length from the Unicorns’ lack of interest. Finally, “If” threatens, “if you ain’t sweet to me / I’ll desert you in a heartbeat,” another suggestion that this time Diamonds means business, if only because for so long he poked fun at the notion of meaning business and maybe it finally fucked him over, like Kurt Vonnegut becoming nihilistic but scrappy in his old age.

The overarching motif of Return is thus Diamonds’ and drummer J’aime’s chameleonic rebirth into a more self-aware and scene-savvy band, whose music is smarter, more interesting, and ultimately more rewarding. That their music sounds amid repeated appearances of “skeletal remains” in Diamonds’ lyrics may bear out his suspicion that being in a band in one of the world’s hottest cities for independent music is sometimes as absurd and cannibalistic as it is worthwhile. The question of whether Return can measure up to the hype and reality of Who Will Cut Our Hair is, smartly, shelved, and the question is wanky and unfair anyway. It should also be noted that it’s possible to enjoy Islands on the basis that they’ve crafted an album that is melodic, conceptually adventurous, lyrically engaging, and more technically complex than anything the band members have pulled off in the past.

Those who felt like maybe they were starting to get Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? only to be left out by Unicorns’ sudden dissolution should be reassured that Return to the Sea is a more rooted and confident effort. Even though its primary songwriter is vocally aware of the omnipresence of uncertainty, Islands seem less intent on fucking with their listener than letting them in on the joke. In one particular way, Return outdoes WWCOHWWG in spades, in that it depicts a more fully realized version of a band that used to fall ass backwards into significance and is now able enough to aim at it. The band is winking at you, after all, but at least now they seem assured enough to let their audience in on the joke, and the experience is more revelatory and gratifying for it.