By Corey Beasley | 24 March 2014
“You can clean around the wound,” sang Future Islands frontman Sam Herring a few years back, “But if you want it to heal / It just takes time.” Singles, the band’s latest record, is largely the sound of Herring taking his own advice. The album—which seems poised to be the one that breaks Future Islands into a much wider field of acclaim—pulls the band’s two most recent LPs, 2010’s In Evening Air and 2011’s On the Water, into a loose, three-part narrative. In Evening Air, still the band’s best work and one of the most fiercely cathartic break-up records you’ll ever find, sprang from devastating betrayal and the twin pains of the toxic anger and wrenching self-doubt that come in the wake of such a shock. On the Water found stillness after the crash, with plaintive reflections like “Where I Found You” mixing with wound-cleaning scraps of hope in “Balance” and “Tybee Island.” On the Water ached plenty, but the rage of In Evening Air had boiled away. Now, Singles finishes the arc in its logical place, with the sound of Herring and his band stripping away the remaining shreds of dissonance—both emotional and musical—to create a joyful, almost evangelically hopeful record about finally letting the light in.
On paper, recording a paean to stability wouldn’t play to Future Islands’s strengths. True, both William Cashion’s hook-laden, Hook-inspired bass and Gerrit Welmers’s penchant for warm synth beds and steady beats can transition from darker moods to gentler tones with ease. But Herring, with his crooning Carey-Mercer-meets-Tom-Waits growl, was born for the moment when everything finally tips over the edge. Expert at balancing restraint with explosive, climactic release, his sudden shift from disgruntled lounge singer to full-on maniac in the final bars of fan favorites like “Long Flight” or “Tin Man” are the most thrilling, indelible moments in the band’s catalog. Sand off the edges of Herring’s delivery, and you risk sanding off the most captivating element in Future Islands’s sound.
And there are moments when this newfound serenity neuters the band: “Sun in the Morning,” easily the poppiest song the band’s done to date, comes close to grating with its relentless cheer, while “Like the Moon” drifts by without leaving much of a trace. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. From the start, opener “Seasons (Waiting on You)” shows Herring has sharpened his voice on Future Islands’s brutal touring schedule, bellowing the track’s chorus from deep in his chest and proving he can bring anthemic drama to a song without shredding his throat in the process. And Herring’s vocals are still a wonder of textures, his serrated syllables and brittle bark jostling alongside syrupy come-ons and feral growls—sometimes all in the same song, as on highlight “Doves,” which sees the band fully embracing its long latent dance-pop inclinations.
For a performer so rightfully praised for his bombastic showmanship during his band’s unparalleled live performances, Herring excels in attention to subtle details, the way an extra emphasis on a certain word or a momentary change in tone can elevate the entire verse that surrounds it. On “Light House,” which finally gets a proper recording after kicking around in the group’s live set for years, Herring clips his sentences in the song’s first half to give extra heft, by contrast, to his full-throated delivery at the track’s peak. Welmers and Cashion, too, have grown more adept at adding small brushstrokes to enliven the bigger picture, apparent in the percussive acoustic guitar on the same track, or, elsewhere, the way Cashion’s bass guitar segues effortlessly from disco grooves to a distorted post-punk slow burn, and the arsenal of synth sounds Welmers uses to gracefully manipulate the mood of each of the album’s ten songs.
Singles finishes with a one-two punch of its best material. “Fall from Grace,” the most dour song on the album, is “Little Dreamer” after a bottle or two of bourbon, a slow dance that (blissfully, finally) lets Herring come unhinged in monstrous, melodramatic glory. And closer “A Dream of You and Me” might be the most purely beautiful track in the band’s repertoire, the moment where Herring’s hard-won optimism sounds most convincing and contagious. Cashion propels the track forward with a frenetic bass groove, layering in a simple electric guitar melody to play against the chiming melancholy of Welmers’s clean synth lines. “All that glitters is gold,” sings Herring, in a line that embodies his attitude on the record as a whole, “don’t believe what you’ve been told.” His performance here, understated and precisely controlled, evokes perfectly the reserves of desperation that lurk beneath a sense of hope, when that hope comes not so much from a natural faith in some universal grace so much as a daily, tooth-and-nail fight for contentment. “I asked myself for peace,” Herring sings, “and found a piece of me.” If anyone can make finding inner calm sound like something to be shared communally, in a crowd with your arm around the shoulder of the stranger next to you and your other fist in the air, it’s Future Islands. People have finally started to give this band its due attention, and with Future Islands’s virtually unmatched ability to make such a wide variety of lived experience sound unwaveringly electrifying, it’s no wonder why.