Out of Arm’s Way

Lyrics in music rarely get the scrutiny and attention they deserve. With an ear for meaning, Orr Shtuhl dives deep into the unsettling content of Islands’ latest album.

When I’m in my room
I love the shadows of my bad bones…
I feel evil creeping in

Bones have long been a favorite vehicle of Islands lyricist and singer Nick Thorburn, dating back to the “bone ca-marrow” he coined with his old band (and Islands predecessor), the Unicorns. On Islands’ latest offering, Arm’s Way, death and evil certainly creep—through bones, lungs, car-crash carcasses, and lots and lots of blood. Throughout the album’s 68 minutes, Thorburn’s words evoke a transformation into malevolence, one accepting, condoning, and eventually partaking in crime and sin. It’s a state of wickedness in which people hone their stabbing skills (“Creeper”), beat fellow humans to death (“Pieces of You”), and on one occasion wear another person’s skin (“I Feel Evil Creeping In”).

Not that our protagonist doesn’t feel bad about it. A strong current of moral struggle runs through Arm’s Way, as our narrator witnesses the slow rise of evil with alternate expressions of horror and ecstasy. He’s appalled when it surrounds him at first, as he witnesses murders (on “Pieces of You” and “Creeper”) and betrayal (“J’aime Vous Voir Quitter”)*. Soon he sees humans picking apart and destroying the natural world (“Kids Don’t Know Shit”), and eventually he succumbs to the hypnotic ease of iniquity (“I Feel Evil Creeping In”). By the album’s final track, “Vertigo (If It’s a Crime),” the once-upright narrator has gone completely Mr. Hyde, cementing the foundation of Arm’s Way: Man is naturally evil.

* * *

But first, let’s look at evil’s creeping onset on Arm’s Way. On the second track, “Pieces of You,” Thorburn speaks to the spirit of a murder victim as he recounts how an unnamed cadre of “gnomes” bludgeoned the victim to death. In the aftermath:

They found your bones in the homes
of a thousand little gnomes
who’d taken pieces for decoration.
They’d open up their mouths;
they seemed like peaceful little mouths.
Inside they found a mouthful of feces.

In an interview with Paper Thin Walls, Thorburn said the song is based on a true story about a childhood acquaintance from his hometown in rural Canada, who, with a group of fellow teenagers, beat someone to death with a lead pipe. Portrayed as “gnomes” the young murderers offer a disturbing, pregnant image. Outwardly they’re innocent creatures, like the garden-variety gnomes found adorning the kitschy lawns of retirees; beneath their peaceful exterior lives an inner evil. “Did they regret anything?” Thorburn begs. “It’s a cold, cold world we swam into.”

The recognition of immorality is a splash of cold water, after which follows a parade of violence and destruction. The four-on-the-floor dance tune “Creeper” is a 100-word vignette of the narrator attempting (and failing) to defend himself from a knife-wielding intruder. However, in addition to this close-combat violence—the second murder he witnesses—much of the destruction crashing around us is against the natural world—another of Thorburn’s go-to themes. Thus far, our narrator is still innocent, condemning others, unaware of the evil dormant inside him.


* * *

Islands’ debut album, Return to the Sea, is a loose concept album about a post-global-warming apocalypse. Its lyrics portray an Earth depleted of oxygen and food supplies, a melting Alaska, and “icy Argentine.” Humanity heeds no warning (“we’ll burn those bridges when we come to them”), for they have no time for science (“we had to build a civilization / let the planet focus on the planet’s rotation”). And when the oceans rise over our heads, let’s not forget what becomes of the ice caps pictured on the front cover—that’s right, islands.

Arm’s Way takes that environmental doom and gives it a philosophical bent: Because man is inherently evil, he eventually will destroy his environment.

In “Kids Don’t Know Shit,” the eponymous children are nurtured by the mysticism of astral constellations and “branches weaving, forests leaving.” Meanwhile, a “cursory person,” the cruel-world counterpart of the young dreamer, stops by to puncture the daydream—and utter the song’s title. Unlike the child murderers in “Pieces of You,” these children are true innocents, while the “cursory person” represents natural man. Closing out the first half of Arm’s Way, it gives us a final glimpse of pure innocence before we dive into the murkier immorality that composes the remainder of the album.

Thorburn replaces “you are forgiven” with “you are forgotten.” After swallowing the seed of enlightenment, he sings, “then suddenly I was out of harm’s way / forgetting the desire to remember.” Nature gets ravaged in “Life in Jail”—in Thorburn’s words, it’s a “self-help guide” of a song—with two voices arguing for and against a life of inaction, surrender, and bliss:

Blow my money on my favorite company
They can blow holes in my ozone
So pour that propane on my clothes
I like it when my skin glows

Besides, there’s nothing to live for
Unless you live a little more
Like you’re going to die

The last two lines are from the “carpe diem” side of the argument; however, the narrator on the pro-surrender side hearkens to Return to the Sea, portending the ozone’s depletion at humanity’s hands—and throwing up his own hands in defeat. It’s environmentalism à la Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” in which Thom Yorke settles for “a quiet life, a handshake of carbon monoxide.” Thorburn’s take on this sentiment also gives us one of his finest turned phrases:

Pour concrete on me
Delicately, baby
So I can live my sedimental life
Sedentarily, what a life

A natural-world trio of songs follows: “In the Rushes,” “We Swim,” and “To a Bond.” In the second, Thorburn trots out the old river-as-a-lifetime metaphor, while the third song depicts the narrator and a companion escaping an attack while swimming. But “Rushes” is most intriguing: It features a Siddhartha-like enlightenment scene in which the narrator follows a disturbing noise into a marsh, only to find a seed that tastes “like a light going off inside my mind.”

In a psychedelic blur of remembering and forgetting, amnesia and illumination, the band erupts into a skewed cover of “You Are Forgiven,” the final movement of the Who’s epic “A Quick One While He’s Away.” But in keeping with Islands’ obsession with death and destruction, Thorburn replaces the final “you are forgiven” with “you are forgotten.”

With this line, the narrator sheds his outermost layer of innocence, the first real sign of his transformation. After swallowing the seed of enlightenment, he sings, “then suddenly I was out of harm’s way / forgetting the desire to remember.” Released from the weighty guilt that comes with striving for purity, the narrator is free, out of harm’s way. “You are forgotten,” he yelps over and over in elation.


* * *

“I Feel Evil Creeping In” opens with one last glimpse of conscious, detached observation of the wave of evil overtaking him bone by bone (When I’m in my room / I love the shadows of my bad bones… / I feel evil creeping in). The narrator reflects on a series of his foul deeds—in past tense, as though laying out a logical argument for turning to the dark side:

My blood is dirty
And I like it, I like it that way
I could see the whole city
When I pushed you out of my fucking way

He then confesses to another crime: abandoning his crew “swimming in a turgid sea” in the wake of a sinking ship. “It was me who committed the felony,” he wails, though not necessarily out of guilt. All these realizations—orderly, Hobbesian points—lead to this enlightened conclusion:

When I behave nobody cares
When I behave badly nobody dares cross me

That dichotomy leads to the first of two major surrenders: the surrender of adhering to social norms. After seeing a child beaten to death, after being scorned for dreaming at the stars, and now after enjoying the spoils of evil, he asks: Why be good?

Finally in “Vertigo (If It’s a Crime),” he succumbs to the second and final surrender. Walking to the gallows, the narrator is totally consumed by the evil, and even mutters the quip, “Is it a crime to pass the blame?” This phrase is wonderfully ambiguous; on one hand it’s an indictment of the malicious society presented to us throughout the album. But more practically, it’s a sneering, backhanded admission of guilt. He’s guilty of whatever he’s going to hang for—but he wonders, couldn’t they just have pinned it on someone else?

The jury’s out, a-creepin’ about

And yet I am a guilty man…

If it’s a crime they’ll hang me every time
I tried to set things straight

I feel that I was too late to be cleared of the crime

In the end, everyone’s to blame: the judge, the jury, the victims, and the perpetrator. You see enough sin, and you start to believe in the futility of good. Philosophically, that is the easy way out—as is a life of careless, effortless evil, abandoning societal norms, and the final punishment that comes with it: death. The narrator shows us that if those “bad bones” are already in your body, if pushing someone out of your way feels so natural, then there’s no need to spend your life in jail. The freedom of death awaits.

* Hardcore Islands and Unicorns fans will want to know more about “J’aime Vous Voir Quitter,” which Thorburn confirmed is about departed bandmate Jaime “J’aime Tambeur” Thompson. (The title translates to “I love watching you leave.”) Some songs on the album could be interpreted to be about Thompson as well, but the ties are residual, if not completely coincidental. “Quitter” seems to exist separately from many of the album’s themes: in Thorburn’s words, “a memento of an era that’s passed.”

Orr Shtuhl is a writer living in subterranean Washington, D.C., where he maintains Wordsworth, a superterranean music and lyrics blog. Email him here.More by Orr Shtuhl