Future Islands - Singles

Baltimore’s bleeding hearts offer a satisfying collection heavy with charisma, sincerity, and strange introspection.

Additional Info

8.2

ALBUM: Singles

ARTIST: Future Islands

2014

Alternative

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.”

1. Seasons (Waiting On You)
The lead single from Singles is the album’s catchiest track. A laser beam synth and reverb tambourine hits set the mood for the first of many driving bass lines from William Cashion. It’s a blueprint that the band has often used before, will use again, but this song is affecting in its tenderness. Herring’s vocals are delivered with care; he enunciates each syllable with precision, as if each sound he makes is of equal importance and is derived from the same sort of pain. Herring is excellent at relaying the catharsis of his words, and the lyrics are simple, yet keen: “People change, even though some people never do/ You know when people change/ they gain a piece/ but they lose one too.” The chorus is particularly powerful with a loud guitar part cascading over the backline. The violin coda allows space to consider the song’s ride; it’s a thinking person’s dance cut, replete with emotion and introspective joy.9.4
2. Spirit
The song’s anchored by a sequenced synth part that sounds like montage music in 80’s tech movie. The band channels New Order here, as the electronic drums pound and provide backing energy for Herring’s growls and sliding vocals. This is one of the more kinetic tracks on Singles, as the dance beat never lets up or loses a step. Herring, too, is constantly in motion, never letting his vocal lines seep in like they usually do. That there may be too much going on may be the song’s biggest drawback, as it’s hard to pin down the exact mood the band is going for with this song. Still, the parts are filled with frisson, and the song keeps bodies moving.7.9
3. Sun In the Morning
Aside from some cheeseball lines (“I hate to watch her go/ I love to watch her go/ that’s cuz I always know/ she’s always coming home”), the song is incredibly catchy, exuberantly so. The chorus is a particular earworm that is hard to shake—a grocery line or bathroom preening hummer. The band adds a backdrop of horns during the chorus, which give the track a particularly large feel. The backing harmonies are particularly pleasant, and somewhat rare for a Future Islands song; it’s usually the Herring show, vocally speaking. All of those added elements combine to give us a fresh cut from a band not done tinkering with even their successful formulas.8.2
4. Doves
A delicate, tinkling key part from Garrit Welmers plumbs the Tears for Fears stock. There’s a sliding guitar part over the funked-out bass. Here, Herring strains his voice trying so hard to understand that he wears himself out: “I need to know/ all I need to know/ it the pain of a lion.” Its effect is that directly mimics the song’s content, and it works here. The chorus is full, dancey, ripe for the airwaves, and the best part of the song.7.8
5. Back In the Tall Grass
Palm-muted guitar and a simple drum machine loop immediately let the listener know of something different. Herring’s voice is pulled back and stripped—it’s almost like he’s telling a story instead of singing. He’s rendering, through the eyes of a child, a creek in North Carolina—a snapshot of his childhood. Staccato key notes highlight the vocals to give his narrative a backing of very child-like wonder. The song is very restrained for a Future Islands cut, and the paired down track illustrates the breadth of which the band is capable. Midway through the song, Herring lets his voice slide, like the sound a giant reptile would make flicking its tongue out. From there, he dials up the bravado—serenading his long lost flame for a romp at the creek: “You look like a rose/ especially a long way from home.” The song ends, appropriately, with crickets—not for lack of a response, but as a backdrop for the dreamy reflection after a long day of growing.8.5
6. A Song for Our Grandfathers
Welmers’ main keys are more industrial than pop here, but the gentle percussion noises and wisps of synth behind anchor the song in same bygone era. Herring’s still stuck in the past lyrically, as well, singing a tender ballad for those memories long in the past. A reverb-drenched guitar line brings in the gleaming chorus: “Let’s be brave.” The song exists in the modes of electronic pop pioneers like Roxy Music, though never adds the touch of a band doing more with the template.7.7
7. Light House
A gentle, acoustic guitar backing that could be the intro to an older Belle and Sebastian song provides the landscape to this ruminative piece. A space setting synth moves the song into a further contemplative realm. Herring bellows lines of support for someone who’s failed—something that he knows a lot about. His theatrical chorus—“And I’ve been away/ I’ve been away too long/ too long to be afraid/ But you know/ What you know is better/ is brighter”—offers a reversal of the normal Future Islands narrative, as before it’s often been the narrator in need of the consolation. It’s a sign of maturity presented in a damn catchy package.8.0
8. Like the Moon
Herring sounds like a subdued Bowie over another mid-paced floor-gazer. The most interesting part of the song is the bridge, where the lyrics are revolve around personal emancipation: “Making a home in my body/ making it grow in my body/ taking these chains from my body/ letting it go from my body.” It’s easy to picture the front man miming the actions of these words as he sheds himself of imaginary bondage. It’s deeply rooted in the dramatic sphere Future Islands loves so much, and it works just the same here.7.9
9. Fall from Grace
The keys sound like tuned champagne glasses while a ride cymbal keeps a steady cadence. The bass is loud until Herring’s deep baritone. This is the strongest track of the album’s second half—emotion and (more importantly) compassion ooze from each note of the vocals and music. The prechorus ascends until Herring unleashes a screaming fury. After the breath of mania, the music is back to the serene, placid sondscape of before—the wound has been immediately cauterized. It’s an instance of perfect aesthetics, as the music matches the words—“You were mine when we were young/ why does it take so long? Now I’m older and I’m grave/ tell me what’s been left to save.” Few bands could pull off such extremes within such a tight space, though it makes complete sense here.9.0
10. A Dream of You and Me
The album’s closer is especially introspective (“I wrestled by the sea/ a loneliness in me/ I asked myself for peace/ and found it at my feet.”), with a wandering bass line, twinkling synth, and relaxed drums. It’s an archetypal song for the band, but instead of the shaking hips, the song is more concerned with patting you on the back: “People lie, people love, people go/ but beauty lies in every soul.” It’s a nice closing sentiment and emblematic of the album as a whole—this is a band moving into its own in nearly every way, and wanting to take its audience along with them.8.1
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.



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