Future Islands - Singles
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What becomes of the broken hearted? After three albums that spent most of their time analysing failed relationships and feelings of loss, one wondered what would come next for synth-romantics Future Islands and deeply introspective singer and lyricist Samuel T. Herring. His was a very particular melancholy; a dark night of the soul where bitterness and "Is it me?" vied for attention, emotions stuck in a holding pattern between stages two and three of the Kübler-Ross model. There was vitriol - "I was taken out with the trash" - and weary resignation - "You couldn't possibly know how much you meant to me" - but little sense that escape or closure was imminent, or even being reached for.
On 2011's glorious On The Water, as poignant an album recorded this side of Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker, his self-realisation ran head on into the point where raw pain gives way to an aching sense of failure that is somehow so much worse. Peppered with crushing observations like "If things had stayed the same / I would have carried you as far as the stars" and "Can I be the one you hold tonight?" - knowing full well that the answer was a resounding "no" - its spacious and unhurried songs were woven around dark, cathartic sentiments. Closer 'Grease' hit especially hard; sounding like an ethereal funeral march, it faded out over mournful strings and Herring asking: "What happens to youth? / What happened to truth?", pertinent questions for a man staring out to sea as the sands of another failed relationship trickle through his fingers.
But all that brine is washed away on Singles, an album that throws off the shackles of the past and looks defiantly forward, not back. Released by indie heavy-hitters 4AD, it was written and recorded over the best part of a year using their own money before a deal was in place, and such freedom shows; it's a breezy, joyous listen, capturing the carefree fun of some of their earlier work - think of 'Walking Through That Door', or 'Vireo's Eye' - and imbuing it with a sense of what could be rather than what isn't. That might not seem like such a leap, but it's heady stuff for a band whose one weakness was occasionally getting weighed down by the seriousness of their chosen imagery and subject matter.
This new found zest is apparent from the off, the squelching synths of opening track and lead single 'Seasons (Waiting on You)' giving way to a chugging groove and William Cashion's nimble, dynamic bass. "Seasons change," croons Herring, the "as have I" coda left unsaid, but very deliberately hanging. Such positivity is reflected in the music, which is fuller and more accomplished. Maybe it's experience, maybe it's confidence, but Singles is full of neat little flourishes: the acoustic strumming on 'Light House', the '80s guitar buried under the synths on 'A Song For Our Grandfathers', the triumphant horns that accompany 'Sun In The Morning's chorus.
They've also expanded, adding Denny Bowen - former stick man in Baltimore post-punks Double Dagger - on drums, a change that benefits Cashion as much as the overall sound. With an actual person to play off, his bass no longer needs to act as anchor, flitting instead around the melodies or taking off on flights of fancy. Gone too is the booming kick-drum and the sterile sheen of drum machines; the beats here are organic and natural - 'Like The Moon' aside - cymbals gently crashing underneath Gerrit Welmers' sweet synth washes. There's still the odd effect that scans like an ode to Martin Hannett's tricks but nothing overly distracting, Bowen happy to push everything gently but firmly forward.
And at the centre stands Herring, wounded heart (and pride) on the mend. "I've grown tired trying to wait for you," he admits at the beginning, a defiant call serving as a "no, it's you". There's plenty of nature here too, always mentioned in pairs: The sun and the moon, summer and winter, night and day. It's the allegory of life itself, the yin-yang of love and loss, and while melodrama is never far from the surface - "When you were here, it was warm / Now it's just a bitter storm" he laments amid guttural howls on 'Fall From Grace', torch song supreme - there's a happy optimism that whatever happens, things will be alright, I'll get through it.
Even his delivery, once described as sounding like "Meatloaf serenading Yorick's skull", has mellowed to a warm, smooth baritone, the yelps and growls banished to the past. In his hands, lines like "Beauty lies in every soul", "Spirit thrives where darkness comes to challenge you", and "I asked myself for peace / and found it at my feet" are positively life affirming, a manifesto for dealing with days when it all seems too much. Simplistic they may be, but stripping away the poetry sharpens the focus and magnifies their impact, a clever foil to their skewed '80s pop and wistful balladeering.
Is it possible to come of age so late in the game? Singles comes at that point where a beloved, cult band's upward trajectory is increasingly hard to maintain, and is the album they hope will drive the leap from merely surviving to a more comfortable level of success, financial and otherwise. "We haven't been working hard for years so that we could not do the big things" Herring recently told Pitchfork, and the effort is paying off; SXSW, Coachella, and Letterman are all being ticked off, and with some aplomb. But none of that would be possible without the tunes, and here Future Islands have crafted the best ten of their career. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and they have emerged, blinking and unbowed, to bask in its glow.
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Based in Baltimore, the birthplace of Tom Clancy and the setting of The Wire; this “synthpop” three-piece have a lot to live up to. On The Water represents the band's third full-length album, and the second to be released through Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey Records. [read more]
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