Album: Islands

Artist: Bear’s Den

Skip To: Above the Clouds of Pompeii

There are albums that you listen to occasionally, and there are albums that you listen to often. And there are albums, like Islands, that you listen to all at once and on repeat (not that I’m obsessed or anything). With its poignant lyrics and superb folk-style instrumentation, Islands is a musical journey, like reading a great book.

The opening track, “Agape,” is perhaps the most upbeat song on the album, rich with guitar, banjo, and thumping drum. It establishes Bear’s Den’s talent for contrasting joyful music with emotional lyrics without causing a clash. While the song seems to address the fear of losing a lover at first listen, the word “agape” is also a Greek word for selfless love, and the song might be about a fear of losing love itself. This theme continues through the subsequent, more laid-back track, “The Love That We Stole.” Quieter and more acoustic, however, “Above the Clouds of Pompeii” tells a story of a family’s grief. It’s a song that, despite the loss, still provides hope throughout. It crescendos toward the conclusion, bringing in a victorious trumpet. “Isaac” maintains a more acoustic feel (relying on some truly superb banjo throughout), but has a slightly darker feel, alternating between major and minor frequently.

Echoing some of the feel of the beginning tracks, the percussive “Think of England” reflects on a failed relationship. The subsequent track, “Magdalene,” has an eerie folk (is that even a thing?) feel to it. The lyrics confused me at first so I did a little digging. The band has indicated that the characters are set against the backdrop of “Magdalene laundry” of the 20th century, institutions meant to help women out of prostitution that eventually just turned into sweatshops (there’s your sad history lesson of the day). The emotional intensity peaks in “When You Break,” the song with the darkest feel due to its minor key and echoing instrumentation. The bridge repeats several times, crescendoing gradually, giving a deep sense of anxiety and entrapment.The lyrics are interpretive. When I listen to them, I hear themes of addiction and the inability to open up about shame. “Stubborn Beast,” while set to quieter music, carries that same poetic quality. The song is the first to mention the term “island,” giving a sense of the protagonist’s loneliness. I’d love to hear what you think of these songs. 🙂

Just as in “Above the Clouds of Pompeii,” trumpet plays an important role throughout “Elysium” in establishing hope as a jaded character calls on an innocent character to maintain their wide-eyed perspective. Even in the broken relationships and angst of the more acoustic “Bad Blood,” the song feels like a natural conclusion to the album, as the speaker seems to try their best to reconcile all of the previously mentioned difficult situations. This album is such a masterpiece, filled with fabulous instrumentation, emotion, and hope.