ARTIST: Future Islands
For all of their music’s unabashed earnestness, Future Islands have been a bit hard to parse. Some of the band’s components seem at odds with one other—their abstract name, a frontman whose stage presence is more Madball than Morrissey—but on Singles, the Baltimore synth-pop outfit does an excellent job of convincing us that all is in its right place. The band has never been more elegant at marrying their head-down fist-up, dance landscapes with the solvent energy of vocalist Samuel T. Herring.
This third record (their maiden voyage for powerhouse 4AD) finds Herring straying from writing songs with traditional love or heartbreak narratives. His vocals are exultant, poetic musings distanced from his past melodrama. His words now act as meditations on arching spiritual quandaries—the sort of quiet turmoil that nags at us all. He’s always been a kind representative for the underdog, but this time around the ‘aww shucks’ is dialed back to positive results. Behind Herring’s bizarre and intoxicating croon (his voice slides from Shakespearian vibrato to a terrifying snarl not unlike the haunted house’s screams in The Amityville Horror) remains the unassuming rhythm section producing mid-paced dreamy tunes full of crisp bass lines and airy synths. This territory has been sufficiently plumbed since the late 70’s, but Herring’s zealous strangeness brings new joys to the familiar ground. On the band’s previous albums—most notably 2011’s On the Water—Herring took up his cross as the patron saint of sensitive dudes and their missed connections; he sang in platitudinous language of love and the loss of it. The album’s pinnacle, “Balance”, showcased an act that was joyously persisting despite panging whispers of it all being just a tad too much rehash. Singles keeps the band’s momentum going in that unique direction, past the aura of simple throwback. Singles’ songs aren’t presented as dark introspective soul shocks—like past giants such as Joy Division or even contemporary twirlers like Liars—but are offered as Holy Communion from Herring directly to others who have found reality subverting their expectations of a happy life.
A few weeks ago, Future Islands delivered a truly memorable performance on the David Letterman show. Seriously, go watch it. Letterman himself was deeply impressed (“I’ll take all of that ya got,” he shouted.), and clips of Herring’s signature gyrations went viral soon after. Time will tell if “The Herring” carves itself into the web’s annals or not (luckily the meme is pretty benign as far as memes go), but the whole affair encapsulates the biggest hitch the band’s faced: Without an eye affixed to Herring’s stage charisma, sometimes the band feels a tad too humdrum. Herring’s vocals are still too responsible for tethering the listener to every song, but Singles is the group’s most successful album in terms of closing the gap between its other members. There’s not a doubt that Herring is still the main draw here (and that’s just fine), but Singles has moments where the rest of the band matches his vigor. The studio version of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” adds a throbbing guitar to the chorus that packs a wallop absent on the Letterman performance. (In fact, it makes a strong case for guitar becoming a permanent fixture of their instrumentation.) There’s a violin coda on the song, too; acoustic guitar on “Light House”; a horn section on “Sun in the Morning”; a wall of heavy distortion on “Fall From Grace”—moments like those add dimension to an album that isn’t as concerned with the cleansing power of On the Water or the dancey mirth of 2010’s In Evening Air. A Future Islands live show is still the best way to experience any of their songs—Herring pounds his chest, verges on tears, flails his limbs as an anathema to life’s banality—but it’s nice to see the band taking steps to fully render their sound without pushing into tired or comic realms.
As its name implies, Singles is less a collection of songs orbiting the same sonic planet, and more of an expansive trek across a wider spectrum of emotion. While each song is unmistakably Future Islands, Herring, too, tries new things with his voice throughout, and each experiment adds to his already impressive vocal repertoire. Standout track “Back in the Tall Grass” shows he’s learned the power of subtlety as his usual frenzy is stripped to a melodic baritone in the vein of 80’s noir-fueled Leonard Cohen. Herring relates a snapshot of a bucolic childhood so clear it’s easy to get lost in the nostalgia even if you were raised in a metropolis. The New Order-ish “Spirit” has Herring professing like a medieval squire about to embark on his greatest quest. That may read as eye rolling, but the band provides an ethereal backing in which the anachronism makes sense because of its bizarre ambition—it’s fun to make believe this way. Most curiously, Herring’s trademark breathy growl is largely absent on Singles, but, again, this record is a lot more contemplative than its predecessors. When his demon scream shows up on “Fall From Grace” in peaked-out desperation, it’s louder than ever; the effect is more arresting than anything the band’s done before.
Singles is without a doubt the band’s best album from start to finish. Each song is an expression of something worth it, and there’s not a spot of filler. In that way, the band has succeeded in making, in Herring’s words, “an album of bangers.” The hooks linger—try not to hum the chorus of “Sun in the Morning”—and a handful of tracks (“Seasons”, “Fall From Grace”, “Light House”) have endless repeat potential. The record is unbalanced only in the gap still between Herring and the rest of the band, but that’s something Singles addresses more so than anything that came before. Future Islands have fully moved into a realm where they’re roiling on their strengths; Herring reaches out his arms and embraces the crying maniac in us all.
“Let’s be brave.”