Divorce informed Islands' previous release, A Sleep & a Forgetting, so insistently that the act of listening felt intimate and a bit indecent. Perhaps as an attempt to exorcise the demons of his divorce, frontman Nick Thorburn provides an ebullient flourish to the dark pop tracks beginning the group's uneven fifth album, Ski Mask. The result is some of the strongest material on the album. Opener "Wave Forms" expertly fuses electro-calypso and glitchy doo-wop. "Becoming the Gunship" is an anthem spiraling around blurry guitars and shattering drums, and "Nil" is existentialism wickedly disguised as a ragtime ditty.
Unfortunately, demons seem too hard to shake, and Ski Mask devolves into a moodier, dourer palette for the rest of its duration. Embracing this funk worked with the acoustic, organic tones of the previous album, but it falters here under the grating noir dribble of "Shotgun Vision" and the aimless throbbing electro-funk of "Sad Middle."
The notion of a lugubrious Islands is welcome when the music sparkles, as with the shoegaze shimmers of "Hushed Tones," or even when it vamps, as with the atmospheric throb and cackle of closer "Winged Beat Drums." Beauty, however, is not always enough, and the gorgeous guitar whimper of "Here Here" is underserved by the rest of the track. "We'll Do It So You Don't Have To," with whipped-up acoustic flumes and blushes of piano, merely sounds like a demo.
Ski Mask, for those keeping tabs, will ultimately occupy a strange place in Islands' canon. Neither a batch of its irreverent, erratic world-pop nor one of its "experimental" turns, Ski Mask seems destined to be Islands' monument to musical bloodletting.