Nick Thorburn has been writing witty, morbid songs in a variety of different genres for a variety of different bands over the last decade, but fame and widespread critical acclaim have always been just out of reach for him. His first widely released album, 2003's Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, still has a loyal cult following, but the band that recorded it has been broken up for so long, its success almost seems as mythical as its name: The Unicorns. Since his 2004 split with the band, Thorburn has started a folk side project called Human Highway, a so-called "doom-wop" super group called Mister Heavenly, and recorded a solo album under the alias Nick Diamonds. Oh yeah, he has also quietly released five albums, the majority of his cumulative artistic output, as Islands.
The five Islands albums all sound like Thorburn, though at times they sound radically different from each other. A Sleep & A Forgetting was a breakup album from a wounded singer-songwriter, while its immediate predecessor Vapors was an upbeat electro-pop album. And when Return to the Sea wasn't whispering creepy prophecies about global winter or arbitrarily inserting a hip-hop verse into the middle of a song, it was opening with the nine-minute-plus "Swans," a song with so many varied ideas that at times it doesn't sound anything like itself. The only two things that most of Thorburn's songs have in common is that they're clever and they're about dying.
Islands' experimentation provides something for everyone, but Thorburn's stylistic shifts have made it difficult for him to earn a loyal fan base to call his own. Islands' identity crisis is expressed explicitly on last year's Ski Mask, and was evident by the low attendance at Port City Music Hall on a rainy Wednesday night. Many of the fans who stayed home might be waiting for the likely festival shows after last month's announcement of a Unicorns reunion, but those who were in an attendance at Port City were treated to a more intimate, more comprehensive and more representative performance from Nick Thorburn than they'll get next summer.
The supporting cast of Islands has always been a revolving door, so I was pleasantly surprised at how instantly apparent the band's onstage chemistry was. From the first notes of the upbeat electronic opener "Switched On," the quartet was on the same page, and Thorburn could be seen making joking asides and flashing smiles to his band mates for several songs before he finally addressed the audience. The group followed "Switched On" with the first three tracks of the eclectic Ski Mask, which showcased the many skills it takes to serve as a member of Islands. After starting the show on lead guitar, Thorburn took a short break to dance around the stage and occasionally in the crowd while Evan and Geordie Gordon made frequent and seamless switches between bass, electric guitar, and keyboards.
The Gordons and drummer Adam Halferty were on point all night, allowing Thorburn to roam freely through the many extremes of the band's history. Every album was featured, and it was impressive to hear all of Thorburn's different genre choices flow smoothly together. The set bounced from the violent stalker anthem "Creeper," to the whispered sing-along "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby," to the confessional "Can't Feel My Face," in which Thorburn plainly admitted "I miss my wife, I miss my best friend." Though they appear jarringly different in studio form, it was an awesome experience hearing how well each song complimented the next in a live setting.
The main set ended with "Nil," a classically misleading Thorburn song that mixes an upbeat piano melody with troubled lyrics about alcoholism. The encore was a fitting conclusion to the night, with an extended take on "Swans," the sprawling first track from Islands' first album, whose many radical shifts serve as a microcosm for Thorburn's entire career.
No, Nick Thorburn has never been one to do the same thing twice, and seeing him play live was a convincing confirmation. That could be bad news next summer for Unicorns fans craving a faithful reenactment of his work from 2003, but it's great news for the few loyal fans of Islands, a band forever reaching in several directions at once to find new creative inspiration.