Erin Durant lives in Brooklyn, where she writes songs that sound as though they couldn’t possibly come from New York City. Yet there, in a noisy, crowded, chaotic city, Durant dreams up quiet tunes full of space, with broad vistas unobstructed by the infrastructure of a massive metropolis.
Location isn’t the only thing that shapes an artist’s songs, of course, and it’s not necessarily even a primary factor. Yet the tunes on Islands, Durant’s second album, have a strong sense of place—just not any one in particular. For Durant, it’s more like an ideal place, somewhere open and full of possibilities, but not free from twinges of wistfulness or regret.
Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio produced Islands, though apart from also contributing electric guitar and synths, his role seems to have mostly consisted of framing Durant’s understated musicianship and knack for evocative imagery. “I am sand moving across the ocean / Til it ends up on the dunes of Colorado,” she sings on “Sand Dunes,” with a downhearted quaver in her high, clear voice as she roams over a wide lyrical landscape, and through a musical arrangement that expands and contracts as needed. Durant, alone, is on piano, playing a simple progression at first on “Sand Dunes” before her vamps become fuller and more ornate. By the end of the song, she’s joined by flute and a rich horn section.
“Good Ol Night” unspools like a stream-of-consciousness fever dream with images that swirl and collide and shift: is Durant dancing amidst the card players in an Old West saloon, complete with rococo flourishes on piano? Or is it a modern casino, glittering in the night sky on the edge of the desert? It could be either one, or something else entirely, but her lyrics are full of canyons, crystal chandeliers, lost poets and rocky hillsides. It would be haunting, if Durant’s tone—and the musical arrangement, full of louche horns, subtle electric guitar licks, and loose, clattering percussion—weren’t the slightest bit playful.
There’s little of that playful spirit on the title track. Stretching to six and a half minutes, the song starts out with a wary embrace of a beach-side respite that ends abruptly with an urgent call from home. Durant’s narrator alternates between two distinct sections, almost talk-singing words describing her surroundings over simple piano chords, and then ramping up into a slow-rolling piano part as she explains why she was there, and, in an oblique way, why she left. At first the song seems like a lead-in to tragedy, but a closer reading suggests that the narrator’s heartache is tempered by a moment of joy—or relief—that she made it back in time. “But here we are on this beautiful day/ Eating for pleasure together one last time,” Durant sings at the end of the song.
The ambiguity is part of Durant’s appeal throughout Islands. Her eclectic song structures and subtle melodies with a tendency to stick help give these songs an indeterminate specificity, like confessionals where her audience can fill in the details with whatever needs unburdening from their own souls. Maybe the sense of place in her music, then, is whatever place it needs to be, for whoever needs it.