Releasing two separate albums on the same day is a feat most musicians can’t claim. Doing so, with one album a sequel of sorts to the band’s freshly 10-year-old debut, is on another level entirely. Or perhaps simply another sea level—one that’s inhabited only by Islands.
I was on a road trip in Florida or Georgia or Louisiana the first time I heard Return to the Sea. The height of the grass that was whizzing past my window isn’t important, nor is the identifying number of the highway on the posts that peppered the shoulder. What’s important—then, now, 10 and 20 and 50 years from now—is the feeling that filled my lungs, rushing up my neck and exploding in my ears as I sat in the passenger seat, knees wedged against the dashboard, letting the transcendent sounds of the sea wash over me.
Those songs followed me home and stuck with me, that feeling carrying me through the confusion of college and the uncertainty of post-grad life, and still today proves to be a trustworthy buoy in the murky waters of post-post-grad life. The ability to spark the particular feeling (featuring Busdriverr, fuck off) that Return to the Sea consistently conjures is one of the assets that has kept me coming back to Islands in every form. When an album worms its way so far into your DNA, it’s only natural to feel protective of it, and even perhaps slightly apprehensive about the idea of a sister album, however loosely they may be tied.
It’s not like I don’t want new Islands; in fact, it’s the opposite. In the 10 years since they made something so untouchable, they’ve proved their worth and their growth time and time again, each new release inciting its own deserving, suspenseful thrill. But to return to something so monumental, whose every song holds a different cache of emotional wealth…the wary anticipation is how I imagine most siblings feel when they find out they’re going to be adding another one to their brood.
There is no “Volcanoes” on Should I Remain Here at Sea? There is no “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone.” No secret, satiating “Renaud,” the only possible reprieve from five long minutes of muffled rain. There isn’t even an updated titular tribute to yet another one of our country’s favorite tragic relationships.
But there is fucking “Christmas Tree.” There is this song that starts out suspiciously enough, named after a plant destined for the spotlight only three weeks out of the year. “Christmas Tree” is full blown Charlie Brown when it comes to its makeup: brittle with a few simple strands stringing it together; Thorburn’s breathiness dripping onto the exposed chords so heavily that things almost start to shake when the drums finally kick in. As a song though, “Christmas Tree” is the perfect Doug Fir, full and warm with just the right amount of attitude and a touch of family drama.
There is also “Hawaii,” a song that Thorburn sings so delicately I spent the first listen on edge, waiting for his voice to break much like a wave. But it doesn’t, of course, and the elegance carries through to the end. His tender delivery is so heartfelt, so convincing, that I find myself reminiscing on a false memory when he asks, “Do you recall swimming with them all somewhere in Hawaii?”
Should I Remain Here at Sea? also bears a well-deserved sense of self-assurance weaved into the new songs, a wiser but weathered edge that comes only from experience, never on display more than it is in Thorburn’s most earnest quips. He dictates it best (both lyrically and sonically) on “Stop Me Now,” a tune with a lazy, floating melody but a driven message. Coming from a track history of intricate, orchestral layers and the occasional saturated synth, Thorburn’s straightforward sass and simplicity of “Stop Me Now” spell out his evolution as a musician, literally challenging any who doubted him along the way.
Even before Return to the Sea, Thorburn carried the craft of dressing up his vulnerability to be almost unrecognizable under his infectious beats and effervescent vocals. He exercises this prowess in different forms throughout each Islands album and Should I Remain Here at Sea? is no different, possibly even sharpening the skill to perfection. More than simply a reflective complement to Return to the Sea, it encompasses some of the best parts of Islands’ entire catalog, whether it be the complexity of Arm’s Way, the liveliness of Vapours, the shared transparency of A Sleep and A Forgetting and Ski Mask, or even the poppier charm of Taste.
To answer the question: if remaining at sea is the kinetic energy that inspires the core of Islands’ consistently flourishing sound, yes. Please stay there, for at least another 10 years.