We’ve been familiar with Bear’s Den for a while now, thanks to their stellar Agape EP. With the release of Islands, their debut full length album, we finally get to hear the guys in all their glory and it’s about time. These Brits have crafted, with 10 simple songs, an album that blows away every expectation that Agape EP set and sets the bar for what folk music can be. Easily my favorite album of 2014 so far, Islands is poised for break out success.
After capturing the attention of the US after touring with Mumford and Sons, Bear’s Den has kept us waiting for this full length debut. While previous fans will be familiar with a few of the tracks, including “Agape” and “Isaac”, the new versions and new songs leave very little to be desired. This album is flawless; my only complaint being 10 songs seems too short. The new, fuller, more electric version of “Agape” is an incredible reimagining of an already incredible song and one that I can guarantee you’ll be hearing on the radio before long. While essentially the same song, there are new layers and slightly different instrumentation (electric banjo?! Yes, please!) and it feels fresh and even bigger. The opposite can be said for “Isaac,” which keeps it’s low key, introspective tone and remains a stellar song.
What’s incredible about this album is how clearly folk it is, while still experimenting with synths and a lot of electric instrumentation. “The Love We Stole” is a soaring love song, not about perfect love, but about real love. When you absorb the song, it’s so much deeper than you expect. “And all of your wisdom only makes me feel like I,/ I don’t deserve the freedom,/ To love with my own heart,/ To care for another more than myself.” The last few choruses are some of the most beautiful on the album. The first single is “Above the Clouds of Pompeii,” a hauntingly beautiful song about a mother who has died. It’s a somber and incredible tribute, lyrically and musically. If this is the kind of music this group is capable of, I’m already ready for album number 2.
“Think of England” and “Stubborn Beast” are vaguely reminiscent of Bon Iver in the best way possible. The acoustic orchestrations recall the best moments of For Emma, Forever Ago, and it’s hard to get higher praise than that. While perhaps a little bigger and fuller than that album, it’s an apt folk comparison. Where Islands differs from Justin Vernon’s masterpiece is it’s ability and desire to try something new. The best example is “When You Break,” which begins slowly and adds synths at the end to create a dreamy, swirling folk sound. This is what separates this album from the rest, the combination of perfectly crafted folk with just enough novelty to turn it into something more.
“Elysium” and “Bad Blood,” the last two tracks, feel much more personal, but don’t stray far from the beauty that Bear’s Den has created. This album, all 10 of these songs, have set the foundation for a band that has the world ahead of it. It’s a sonic landscape that looks subtly different from everything that we’ve heard before. Islands is without the finest album I’ve heard in 2014 and stands to be one of my favorites for a long time to come.