On Saturday night, the band Islands performed a set at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, playing tracks off their new album Ski Mask.
Nick Thorburn, the frontman of the group and an alumnus (along with Islands drummer Jamie Thompson) of the pre-Islands group the Unicorns, is the kind of musician whose biting melancholy seeps through not only his work but his stage presence as well. A gangly multi-instrumentalist whose career has spanned multiple genres, pushing the boundaries of what many consider “conventional” indie rock, Ski Mask is just the latest iteration of Thorburn’s perpetual struggle to do anything but what the listener might expect.
On Saturday, Thorburn opened the set crooning with the kind of declarative sadness Islands’ lyrics are known for: “I won’t ride another wave / And I won’t write another word after today.” A haunting beginning of the album that some critics have suggested implies Islands is heading for a near-future breakup, the lyrics and the warbly voice singing them spoke of the turbulence that has gone hand-in-hand with Thorburn’s and Islands’ careers.
In a press release for the album, Thorburn said, “This record is really about being angry … This record is like a summation of Islands, everything we’ve ever done distilled into one record. It’s basically an essential introduction to Islands — it’s everything we’ve ever been about.” While Ski Mask certainly seems angry at points, in particular the tracks “Becoming the Gunship” and “We’ll Do It So You Don’t Have To,” the album doesn’t quite live up to Thorburn’s billing as “everything (they’ve) ever done distilled into one record.” On the whole, Ski Mask is worth a listen, if only because Thorburn’s endless capacity to surprise and entertain his audience compensates for the stretches of boredom that appear somewhat too frequently.
During Saturday’s set, Thorburn put on an affable face for the last show of the tour and plowed through the songs with the kind of manic energy associated with his best work. His amicable nature seemed far different from the darker vibes he gives off in interviews or even in previous performances.
When Islands played at Webster Hall in New York, touring in support of 2008’s Arm’s Way, he played “Rough Gem” as an encore — Island’s most well-known song, off their debut album — prefacing it by spitefully remarking, “I fucking hate this song.” On a copy of the set list I snagged off the stage when the performance was over, I saw that “Rough Gem” wasn’t written down.
In another interview (and in the press release previously mentioned), Thorburn emphasized how much Ski Mask was about an “identity crisis.” Specifically talking about Islands’ identity issues, Thorburn considers the “vague and sinister” character of a ski mask while recognizing that “a ski mask isn’t inherently a tool of violence. It’s to protect your face from the elements.”
While Thorburn and Islands still have ways to go (and potentially years of therapy ahead) in sorting out their identity issues, Thorburn’s live set indicated he’s invested in his art and his audience. Hopefully, what comes next will channel more of his best and less of his baggage.