Albums born out of sorrow can usually go one of two ways: the principals can wallow in their grief and create unlistenable, hard-to-bear work or they can find a way to make their pain relatable and universal while writing some good tunes, too. On Islands' fourth album, A Sleep & a Forgetting, Nick Thorburn does a pretty good job of the latter. The album deals with the dissolution of his marriage and the upheavals in his life that followed, and unlike previous albums where his words would dance around meanings and emotions, and the music was full of weirdness and artifice, Thorburn and the rest of the band play it straight all the way through. They stick to a basic guitars-drums-keys setup most of the time, creating quietly tender backing for Thorburn to bleed over. The ache in his simply sung vocals is apparent from the very start; the anguish in his words can't be ignored. The opening lines of "Can't Feel My Face" ("I miss my wife/I miss my best friend every night/I miss my home/I miss my own bed and my old life") are among the saddest, most obvious and true lyrics you'll ever hear. A little artless perhaps, but they hit you like a surprise punch in the gut. The rest of the album's lyrics paint a similarly bleak picture, but instead of being a total drag, the light and peaceful touch of the music makes the suffering sound pleasant. There's a gentle lilt to many of the songs that make them sound like lullabies of a sort. You can almost imagine Thorburn singing "In a Dream It Seemed Real" or "No Crying" to himself late at night to help bring on some calm. The few songs that break the mood of melancholic introspection come as a relief; the jaunty piano of "Hallways" and the bouncing doo wop feel of "Can't Feel My Face" keep the record from being a total mopefest and let a tiny bit of sunlight creep in. The ending of "Never Go Solo," as the hooky chorus unspools, even sounds a little hopeful. Mostly though, the record is a highly listenable, completely heartbreaking tour of Thorburn's shattered life. If you're going through the same thing he was, you might want to steer clear until you feel a little better. Anyone with a little distance from their own pain will find much to admire in the honesty and craft of the album.
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AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra