While critical acclaim and underground success are great, they don’t guarantee sales. After being dropped by two labels, including Columbia, The Mary Onettes opted to self-release before being picked up by indie label Labrador, which has just brought us their much anticipated second full-length album, Islands. It follows 2007’s eponymous effort and, like that record, rubs shoulders with nostalgia.
The indie dream pop quartet from Jonkoping, Sweden still channels its ’80s and ’90s influences – we sense Echo & The Bunnymen and The Stone Roses – but draws a glorious setting of its own. Islands evokes the dreamy winter wonderland of their native country, shrouded in snow and shadowed by grey clouds, pierced by a far-off white glow.
The Mary Onettes have grown in confidence, delivering a wider sound and dramatic pop songs with expansive hooks, dazzling patterns and enticing strings. But it is the potent synths that dominate the sound and create the perfect 1980s wintery backdrop for the somewhat philosophical and often gloom-and-doom lyrics.
No man is an island, and certainly not singer-guitarist Philip Ekstrom, who shares his most personal feelings with us and draws inspiration from the deaths of his loved ones. The intertwining themes of Islands run a wide emotional gamut: from love, longing and regret to repentance, loss and mortality, weaving one “isle” to another.
With its flawless production and ambient feel, album-opener and first single Puzzles sets a standard from the get-go: “Let’s make this year look good tonight,” Ekstrom sings, almost pleading. He mourns his salad days in The Disappearance Of My Youth and Century and expresses loss and regret in God Knows I Had Plans, while Don’t Cry For Love provides a gloomy picture of what’s awaiting us: “It’s just a matter of time/Before they put me in the grave/Before they put you in the grave”.
Yet they manage to deliver the most cheerless sentiment in a stirring approach. The mood shifts and gets a boost when Symmetry emerges with a more uptempo resonance. Despite the prevailing symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, Islands breathes life with its organic instrumentation and flawless arrangements.
The Mary Onettes have mastered the art of writing catchy four-minute tunes without compromising themselves, but nor do they take any risks. Islands is unwaveringly loyal to their sound and influences, and if anything it’s maybe a bit too consistent. Perhaps the track Bricks sums it up best, borrowing a famous line by Pink Floyd: “You’re just another brick in the wall.” Good though this album is, they would benefit from hurling some bricks in a few different directions next time.