In order to fully grasp the musical juggernaut that is Vapours, all it takes is a quick look at the album artwork: a grainy, faded-out headshot of frontman Nick Thorburn looking rather bored and decaffeinated against a garish indigo-blue background. That’s it.
For those of you who want the back story, Vapours — Islands’s third LP — is a turkey. Gone are the lush orchestral flourishes. Gone is the unchecked sense of adventure that permeated every old Islands track, regardless of quality. Gone is the fun.
Vapours is Islands stripping down — an action that would’ve looked good on paper after the oftentimes highfalutin Arm’s Way (the band’s sophomore slump). The issue with this minimalism is it sheds everything that made Islands likeable in the first place. While Arm’s Way took itself a little too seriously, there was a certain charm to its let’s-go-everywhere swooping mini-epics haunted by Thorburn’s inimitable croon. There is absolutely nothing charming about Vapours.
Built upon uninspired drum machine loops and synthesizers that range from farty to tacky, Vapours sounds like it was made over the weekend on McLovin’s laptop. But wait: There are real guitars and bass! And an electric sitar! What a novel concept! Sadly, Islands isn’t the first band to mix the synthetic with the organic — Dirty Projectors did it about 20 times better just a couple months ago. And a concept means zilch when the songwriting quotient hovers dangerously close to nonexistent.
Vapours is action-packed with arrangements that don’t go anywhere at all. Over the course of “No You Don’t,” synths and guitars build on each other, moseying in and out of the mix. But none of the individual parts do anything other than loop incessantly or shrug back and forth between the same two chords (save for a 15-second electric sitar solo that doesn’t refresh so much as just tease). It’s pretty disturbing that six musicians — and talented ones at that — participated in the recording of this album.
The record reeks of the transparent effort to take the component parts of low-grade club music and mainstream radio synth-pop and indie-fy them. This epic fail of an experiment is especially evident on the embarrassing “Heartbeat,” with Thorburn actually busting out the Auto-Tune. It would’ve taken a hell of a track to bring this bold move to fruition — and Thorburn digi-whining over a dumbed-down version of the synth line from “Kids” by MGMT is a far cry from irony. Rather than taking conventional synth-pop and subverting it, Islands simply remove the hooks.
This brings us to the biggest bummer of all: Thorburn’s vocals. It’s as if Thorburn read all the media spitfire knocking his fluttery histrionics on Arm’s Way and retreated back into the closet. His usually taffy-like tenor is flat and lifeless despite his obsequious ooh-ooh-ing and stretched-out vowels, making it sounds like he’s hiding behind a monotone even as he’s shifting octaves. The aural end result is somewhat akin to a washed-up glam rocker on a reunion tour, and it isn’t particularly pleasant.
The most painful thing about all this is that Islands clearly know how to write a killer pop song. “Vapours,” a funky, Bowie-esque bopper laden with abundant horn fills and tambourine shakes, and “Disarming The Car Bomb,” engorged with fuzzed-out bass and glittery ’70s nostalgia, show that Islands hasn’t completely lost its edge (and that it probably could’ve recorded a decent enough glam rock album).
But the truth is that Islands recorded Vapours, not Electric Warrior: Part Two. So the best you can do is look at Thorburn’s vacant expression on the album cover and hope he wakes the fuck up real soon.