There’s a certain childlike quality to the earnest and unadorned songwriting of Bear’s Den. What more would you expect from a band that derives its name from Where the Wild Things Are, the kiddies’ tale by Maurice Sendak? With a soft-pawed touch, their 2013 EP Without/Within offered a blend of Snow Patrol’s sorrowful pop and the banjo jangling of Communion label-mates Mumford & Sons. A year on, Islands is a debut record done little justice by lumping the trio in with their touring chums.
“Agape” is a deceptively deep opening track that mourns a relationship haunted by paranoia. Sometimes, so this lament goes, distrust will set in to your love-addled mind, and you don’t know whether she, the most important person in your life, is telling you a lie. You’re in agape love with her (the highest of the four Biblical loves) but the feeling might not be mutual enough, and she could disappear at any moment. “So tell me how long, love, until you go / and leave me here on my own?” writes Andrew Davie, distilling angst into potent monosyllables.
The album’s love motif is complemented by both Davie’s soft, intoning vocals, and his fondness for Hemingwayish concision. “Isaac” and “The Love That We Stole” each climb to forceful refrains, achieving much with small flourishes: a trumpet here, a subtle layer of synth backing there. It’s nothing very novel melodically, but every track is shrouded in rich atmosphere.
Things get less child-friendly with the (literal) breakdown of “When You Break”. Gone now are the lofty Bible references; a chant of “I wanna fuck away all of my fear” drags us down to earth. Strategic mood-changes like this stop the album from slipping into a set list of repetitive dirges. They make it clear Bear’s Den are no mere double bass-plucking poseurs – they’re the real thing.
Then again, it’s precisely this that makes you wish Bear’s Den would let their hair down more often. Islands makes for an introspective and at times moving listen, but you can’t help but think that they’re capable of more than riding a folky fad wave. There’s a wild thing lurking somewhere – let’s hope this sensitive bunch take their next chance to set it loose.