A Great Musical Paradox
I find myself trying capture the meaning of Islands while I wait for them to play, but I fail, which is, inevitably, endemic to their scene. It cannot be captured by nouns, only grazed, or outlined, by a polyphony of adjectives: Eclectic; Charming; Childish; Inquisitive; Cliquey; Bizarre; Quaint; DIY; Bizarrely apocalyptic; Cryptic; Incomprehensible; Beautiful.
Islands enter. Nick Thorburn is very white, pale and thin in a wife-beater and vest, resemblant, again, to Wolf Parade as if he's an emaciated, angelic biker. Aaron Harris sits at his drums while Patrice and Patrick grab their guitars, bass and electric respectively. And Sebastian and Alex Chow enter, dressed, charmingly, in collared black shirts and pants. Violin clad, as well.
Nick leans into the mic. His guitar hangs like a cowboy's belt and gun, a post-punk derogate.
"This is excruciating."
What!? But you don't have time to question it before they start to play something wonderful, so heroin-chic poppie, with a gross-folk element to die for, that you cannot judge them.
And thus the entrance into the evening's great paradox: is Nick T. a douchebag whose music is beautiful? Or is it all a facade, a careful joke played on everyone, or at least on those outside their scene? It is, again, indecipherable. There is no way to tell if they are serious. The camp is all-pervasive. They play their new single, "The Arm", and, unlike the recording, it feels like a fun pop song - something pretty in its brevity, whereas the recording feels almost, in places, like a Classic rock song in rather a bad way that is only salvaged by the fact that it's a song about some mysterious arm coming to get us all.
The music is, again, almost folky, but it's with a brilliant pop twist. They play on and there is a feeling of hope in the air, as if a perfection has been reached that no one wants ruined by Nick's pomposity. It's the fragility of confrontation, and it defines the post-Unicorns and post-Tambeur Islands scene: is it all a campy joke? is Thorburn ironically playing with his own image? or is he really just plain coked-out and gorged on his own sense of self-importance?
"It's really great to be here ... Is that what bands say? Actually, I was lying. It isn't that great to be here ... No, actually, I was lying about that. Here's another song. It's called 'Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby'". And the crowd cheers despite its confusion over Nick's parlance, and Islands play. It is beautiful. The Chows are utter magic with their violins and pianos and weirdo Native drums.
Then Nick says "this will be our 'last song' [he makes rabbit ears with his fingers] but you all know it really isn't, as my rabbit ears indicated. Unless you want it to be. We could just spontaneously end things right here." Again there is the uncertainty; the impossibility of definition: are they serious? or are they just making fun of how gigs usually are? Self-reflexivity in an encore - I have definitely never heard that before, so, I suppose I should thank them.
They do the encore. Someone from the crowd cries out for them to play "Rough Gem" and Nick laughs, "Sorry, we ... uh ... forgot how to play that one." And they don't play it. Their most popular single is discarded. "Swans" and "Tsuxiit" are played. "Volcanoes", too. And then they are gone. Applause is not raucous, because we cannot be sure if they want it. It has been an anti-performance, perhaps pompous, or perhaps more honest than anything I've ever seen.
Is it phony to strip a show of its formalities? Its ceremonies and customs? Or is it simply a part of Islands' Montreal nonchalance, their paucity of politic? These are old questions of international table manners and culture. What is important to note about this show is that Islands no longer play wholeheartedly with the crowd in the way they used to. No more joyous crowd mingling. No more leading the people into the street to dance just for fun after playing a show. No more singing into our eyes.
I've watched this band from the bittersweet inconnu of its youth to its jaded middle age. I have heard that J'aime Tambeur left because of cocaine and fame issues in the band. Nick consistently sniffled his way through the show, making very deliberate nose-sucks into the microphone, so that I am forced to consider it either a) another deliberate and very crafty joke about cocaine, or b) a genuine indication of a drug affliction. Who knows? Only Islands. The experience is privatised. Something that was once young and fresh and optimistic is no longer so, but "Islands are forever" as Nick often says, so who knows what the future holds?
Anyways, the music was beautiful. One of the prettiest things I've ever listened to, actually. Whether Nick was joking or not is, in the end, is as irrelevant and impossible to ascertain as an attempt to define the scene he comes from. Pompous or honest, the sweat pouring off of him throughout the show, and the superbly beautiful quality of the music he offers us, is real enough for anyone.
Islands new single is “The Arm”, and their new album is Arms Way. They are currently on a six stop UK tour stopping at Brighton, Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham, Cambridge and London. See it while it lasts.