In Evening Air
(Thrill Jockey; 2010)
By Lindsay Zoladz | 26 May 2010
In Evening Air earns a lot of potentially damning epithets: it is a new wave record, it is sung by a man whose vocal affect unabashedly channels Meatloaf, it is a break-up record. It’s hard to believe that these elements could combine to make something at once tender and majestic, something wonderfully, achingly sad. Well, believe it: In Evening Air is all of these things. True, its thematic terrain has been charted many times over. It is a break-up album—there have been many, and there will be many more. But I’ve never heard one that captures so precisely the flavor of this particular hurt: throbbing and grand, sad in the same way that an old neon Sunset Strip cowboy standing next to a casino would be sad as the shoddy circuitry of one of his legs flickered on and off, smarting with amputation perpetually felt anew. Mourning Becomes Electric, you’d want to proclaim, were you not certain that some asshole’s surely wasted that pun on a lesser record.
NC-by-way-of-Baltimore’s Future Islands find drama in unexpected contrasts; this is what puts them a cut above other new wave revivalists who are only interested in rehashing cliches and capitalizing on nostalgia. But really, Samuel T. Herring’s vocals are what set the band apart. His voice is spellbinding: guttural, leonine, occasionally prancing with an almost Victorian sass—imagine a phlegmy, overweight Oscar Wilde fronting a New Order cover band and multiply by awesome. Check out his range on “An Apology,” a track most of which he sings like he’s about to cough (if you think Frog Eyes’ Paul’s Tomb couldn’t possibly be any better, imagine if Carey Mercer had this guy’s lower register, now remove your head from your hands) and still exerts enough control to articulate a melody. Beneath his vocals each song is driven by lush, forward-thrusting synths that seem to have little interest in the conventional architecture of verses and choruses, intent instead on keeping the songs galloping along at a steady mid-tempo. All the while, Herring growls and whimpers like a sad, rumpled maestro starring in his own private opera.
Lead-off single “Tin Man” is a perfect introduction to the band; like all great lead-off singles, it is the album itself in remarkably palatable miniature. It has a punchy drum machine heartbeat (which cleverly taunts Herring as he declares “I am the Tin Man”), pulsating synths, and our trusty frontman selling the simple drama of lines like “You couldn’t possibly know how much you mean to me … / You never imagined I could be strong without you.” The stand-out “Long Flight,” on the other hand, is a slow burn. It doesn’t bother with a chorus so much as a couple of fragmented refrains (“You can’t look me in my eyes anymore”; “Just ‘cause you needed a hand”) repeated and syntactically rearranged throughout the rest of the song like a frenzied villanelle. The repetition of the lyrics, combined with an ever-intensifying synth line, creates an almost unbearable tension—and, sure enough, Herring finally breaks half a minute before the song ends, thrashing and growling for only a few seconds and then retreating into a defeated whisper. Something about his outburst feels lonely and futile, like gnashing your teeth at a mirror. Because even though all the songs on the record are sung to a certain you, there’s an unshakable sense that the person Herring’s addressing isn’t listening.
What makes In Evening Air a great break-up album is the same thing that makes Teen Dream (2010) a great break-up album: it’s not exactly that the lyrics espouse these profound, poetic truths about relationships so much as they use sonic patterns and pretty mundane language to create a sad and disorienting sense of something very familiar disappearing. Joel so aptly called Teen Dream (my Album of the Decade, at this delightfully premature juncture) “music so humble that the slightest elements seem to fundamentally alter the momentum of the songs.” And despite the ostensible theatrics of Herring’s voice, that’s what’s happening here too. The synth lines are so dutiful and consistent that they align the entire record with a single spine, setting the stage for the impact of the tiniest variations in Herring’s repetitive lyrics. Think of Teen Dream‘s “Zebra”—the way the lyrics of the second verse are just those of the first repeated in a different order, and the way the emotional impact of the song hinges upon tiny changes in expected patterns. It’s like talking to someone with whom you’re so familiar that you can only really express yourself in sentences you’ve already said a million times before. Doesn’t the hollow repetition of something simple and once-meaningful, after a while, become sadder than even the purplest prose? In Evening Air takes all this a step further: it acknowledges the repetition as a communication breakdown, a form of inarticulation, and it foresees its inevitable future as slow corrosion into silence—a time when there won’t be anyone around to hear it.
For a record that seems to rely so much on charismatic vocals, Herring is surprisingly (and brilliantly) low in the mix. It’s like In Evening Air is constantly trying to make him small, which is fitting since it’s a record about things that were once tangible shrinking and disappearing. “As I Fall,” then, is a fitting finale. It captures that very dumb feeling you have when something ends, that moment when obvious things and inelegant platitudes begin to ring truer than anything else. “I can’t touch you anymore / I can’t tell you how I feel as I fall,” Herring repeats until these observations mean nothing, and then again until they become absolutely everything. In the end even his once-brassy vocals disappear, as a mute, ambient hum takes over the last few minutes of the record. Get over it, these synths assert. Be strong. Suck it up. Let go, or else repeat from the top.