It’s always a curious thing when the musical stars seem to align perfectly, signposting the way for a band to make the step up to a higher level. Everything seems to be pointing in that direction now for Baltimore synth trio Future Islands.
The band’s striking performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, illuminated by the magnetic, mesmerising presence of front man Samuel T Herring, has certainly done a great deal to bring the band into the public conscience. This has been capitalised on with a string of rapturously received performances at SXSW and signing to esteemed label 4AD. Of course, all of this excitement would be redundant if the music was not similarly exciting. Fortunately, Future Islands’ fourth album Singles is the perfect record to signify a significant step forward for the group.
Future Islands’ previous records were always interesting and diverting. However, Singles has a strong sense of bold confidence and character about it that makes it stand out. There’s an unquestionable feeling of a band stepping up and making the record that they have always promised. Opening track and lead single Seasons (Waiting On You) introduces the whooshing, sashaying, powerful pop sound that drives the album. Future Islands are making big pop music.
Herring’s remarkable vocals are the focal point. His voice is as idiosyncratic and hard to pin down as ever, but set against the lushness of the pristinely polished synth backings it’s even more bracing. Often, it sounds as if there are five or six different voices on the one track as he switches from belching guttural growls to mannered robotic drone and back to feral howls. When the band melt into the clutch of soft and sensual RnB influenced ballads that provide the album’s highlights his voice almost seems to transcend the music, as on the gorgeous childhood reflection of Back In The Tall Grass.
Singles appears to signify a brighter version of Future Islands. It’s not a record tortured by bleak themes such as the break up songs that filled their previous albums. Instead, it’s lyrically reflective and hopeful. It’s filled with a sense of romantic idealism and adventure. This is best exemplified on the touching, graceful ballad A Song For Our Grandfathers. It’s the sort of smoothed out ’80s ballad that you could imagine Roxy Music circa Avalon writing, albeit you could never imagine Bryan Ferry sounding as singular as Herring does. It’s a truly inspiring moment though as Herring implores to his muse: “Let’s be brave.”
Musically, the album sees the band sharpening up and refining their sound until everything is positively gleaming. The album is filled with the sort of synthesiser sounds that have rarely been heard since the golden age of ’80s pop. Aligned to these shiny sounds are the best songs of the bands career. The wistful, yearning electro of Sun In The Morning and the funky jam of Doves indicate a band willing to experiment and move forward while simultaneously amping up the melodious pop quality of their music.
Singles is very much a physical album, in the way in which the songs grab and mesmerise you, and in the way you can imagine Herring’s rhythmic dance moves, as seen on their live shows, moving in time to the grooves of the songs. And it’s physical in the way Herring’s voice embodies a kind of intense, visceral spirit. It often sounds like something has overcome him, such as the torturous howled screams that punctuate the dark, dolorous, horror movie like theatrics of Fall From Grace. All of these factors combine to make an album that can be enjoyed on different levels.
Singles is a record that is experimental, yet hugely accessible. Future Islands have always tried to challenge their audience. As that audience looks set to grow ever larger, the band have set course for a thrilling pop journey.