Emotion is a dangerous commodity in music; any casual listen to Jacaranda FM and a…
Emotion is a dangerous commodity in music; any casual listen to Jacaranda FM and a generic playlist of sappy love songs would show you that. Musicians have always made a (bad) living out of superficial songs that speak of ‘love’, ‘devotion’, ‘commitment’ and ‘heartbreak’ that is the real opiate of the needy and lazy ears of the masses. It’s calming, inoffensive and limps steadily out of memory like a stubbed toe. So when a band decides to confront these emotions head-on and wholeheartedly, they are walking a dangerous tightrope that could lead them falling on one end, say Oasis ‘Wonderwall’, or on the other more common side, say Billy Ray Cyrus’ ‘Achy Breaky Heart’.
When Future Islands lined up to perform on the Late Show With David Letterman, like hundreds of bands itching for a chance before them, neither Letterman nor most of the audience had any clue who they were. So when lead singer Samuel T. Herring – who looks like a too-short bouncer at a too-shit nightclub – proceeded to deliver an altogether rare emotion, both Letterman and his audience and thousands on Tumblr and Twitter were floored. Herring went for sincerity. Total commitment and belief in every word that alternatively floated, barked and stumbled out his mouth like it was his last. Backed by a progressively wackier set of dance moves it could have been easier to label Future Islands as a joke band straight out of a School of Rock outtake. That was until you saw Herring’s eyes: there was ‘love’, ‘devotion’, ‘commitment’ and ‘heartbreak’ all behind the piercing eyes of a man that has been described as looking “like an undercover cop who just tried coke for the first time”, or “the founder of normcore”.
With that mesmerizing performance that set the music community’s tongues wagging behind them, Future Islands released their fourth album, ambitiously named Singles. The band are probably best labelled a synth-pop act, with their sparkling synths and new wave basslines, but they have been on the outskirts of the indie community – famous by way of BIRP playlists – until now. So in response, they open up their album with the truly anthemic ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’. Herring carries the song to its lofty heights with a voice that, in such a saturated market, is truly unique. It goes high and low, clean and menacing, all across the track’s length. It ends with the lines “I’ll be waiting on you”, sung in way that evokes both resilience and resignation.
The band mentioned how they were inspired by 80s R’n’B. A Prince influence is shown on the clean guitar lines of ‘Doves’; it is a sound out of which artists like Twin Shadow have built an entire career. The xylophones and slight Tropicana feel call out to a cleaner Washed Out but the lyrics, admittedly plain (“We were built for making love and not for war”), are lifted by Herring’s defiant preacher delivery. Another standout is the awe-inspiring ‘A Song For Our Grandfathers’ which is built from the shards of ‘Someone Great’-style production, and amidst an elegiac guitar riff Herring muses on death and doing the most with your life while you still have it. It’s a generic sentiment but is qualified by the track’s sheer vitality. The album moves on to The Cure-indebted melancholy of ‘Light House’ as the frontman sings “What you know is better, is brighter” in his most reserved and fragile performance yet, as his voice threatens to collapse in on itself.
But if you were worried you had heard everything that Herring could come up with, he goes for the jugular on ‘Fall From Grace’ where the song builds like a dirge only to find his voice plummet down below in a truly guttural howl. Considering the theatricality of Herring’s voice it’s the one moment he perhaps overindulges, although the searing feedback provided by guitarist William Cashion keeps it from unfolding into a total mess. The LP closes with its poppiest song, ‘A Dream of You and Me’, that evokes Wild Nothing and fellow Baltimoreans, Beach House.
This album isn’t without flaws: they are some great songs but there’s often a one-dimensional aspect to it that gives off the impression that it wouldn’t merit repeated listens into the future. But on those moments where Herring’s bizarre voice and the minimalist production click together, one cannot help but marvel at something so rarely seen: an ordinary man honing a talent, going for broke by giving every inch of his body for his art and shooting for the proverbial moon. Goodness, he and his band come close.