On the Water
(Thrill Jockey; 2011)
By Conrad Amenta | 18 October 2011
For those of us who also pored over last year’s wonderful In Evening Air, it’s becoming increasingly clear that vocalist Sam Herring is documenting the dissolution of a relationship in chapters. In Evening Air possessed equal parts angst and catharsis, pin-wheeling madly from euphoria to melancholy. On the Water, coming just one year later, is contemplative, sad, and resigned. Thematically, Herring has moved from his laundry list of jagged feelings and denial to the selective memories of a sober hindsight.
On the Water is also boldly idiosyncratic, making curious choices like opening with a title-track that both lulls with its inexorable pace and sounds immediately out of place, or locating the short, spare instrumental “Open” four tracks in, or starting “Close to None” with a couple minutes of ambient sound, or making “Tybee Island” so dreamily quiet as to be barely existent. There’s a lot of growth here, but frankly On the Water is a much more difficult listen than In Evening Air both because it forgoes anything resembling an up-tempo single, and because it’s hard to identify with something that sounds like it was made for an audience of one. Herring is singing to a framed photograph of someone, and the listener feels like they’ve intruded.
Take Herring’s recollection of the smell of skin and hair on “Where I Found You,” declared with a totally uncomplicated sincerity that approaches the cringe-worthy, or of picking up one’s things from an ex’s place on “Before the Bridge.” Both moments are described without what one might call poetry, instead treated as a blunt, retrospective catalogue of throes more painful and, to be a little shitty about it, more interesting to listen to. The tone fits nicely with In Evening Air the way the Arcade Fire’s three albums move nicely through the phases of grief towards resolution. But it’s not surprising that an adolescent energy presents fewer boundaries to access than an articulate, mature summation of lessons learned. It’s easy to understand how On the Water might be necessary from a developmental perspective, but the experience of listening to it without context is less forgiving.
At its best, such as on “Grease,” On the Water is luxurious and gorgeous cheese, evoking Berlin’s 1986 hit “Take My Breath Away” all over the place. But overall the album lacks balance and feels episodic. It has immense value for those of us who have already bought in to the notion that Future Islands are a remarkable band, and so have invested in the narrative arc of Herring’s heartbroken diary. (One wonders if their next effort will contain the enthusiasm and romance of moving on, and with a band this hard-working I don’t think we’ll have to wait long to find out.) But for those yet to give the band a chance, On the Water is too uncompromising, too disinterested in being for anyone outside of its circle of two.