Future Islands are on the up-and-up. The unapologetic romanticism of last year’s In Evening Air jettisoned the Baltimore cartoon-pop sensibilities of their earlier, uptempo synthpunk, and the newfound seriousness endeared the band to audiences, drew widespread critical acclaim — such as it was, in the independent music world — and propelled them to later festival slots more appropriate to the album’s title. Now, on On the Water, they’ve paced themselves, slowed down the tempos, and left room for ambience, such that the album’s fevered points hit much more poignantly.
Sam Herring has come into his own as one of the most distinctive vocalists working today, equally prepared to pump up a crowd, comfort a lover, or scare the shit out of you. He really comes into his own during On the Water, sounding by turns like a populist David Bowie or less vaudevillian Tom Waits. On Wave Like Home (2008), he almost sounded like a white, synth-backed version of Bad Brains’ H.R., which worked in its own way: his barking delivery made a stark contrast with the nigh-Victorian lyrics. But it just doesn’t compare to the range and depth he has now. For sure, he can still pump up a crowd — and does, on tracks like the singles, “Beyond the Bridge” and “Balance.” The latter builds on one of their signature steel drum-like synth hooks with some of the tightest songwriting I’ve heard from the band yet. Whereas their lyrical romanticisms sometimes felt a bit stinted and high-school, not so anymore. Herring delivers the final bridge effortlessly: “I can sit and talk/ Because I was just like you/ So arrogant and brave/ Impetuous and weak/ But trust me as a friend/ I’ll do all I can do/ And I’ll do anything for you/ Because I want to see you through.”
I had the pleasure of seeing Future Islands perform a few of these new songs in March at the album release show of Celebration, another excellent Baltimore band. Future Islands had decked out the cavernous nave of the early-20th-century church with suspended clouds, technicolor triangles, and projectors — the sort of psychedelic accouterments that reminded me of one of the Merry Pranksters’ happenings. Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner joined the band for “The Great Fire,” and it plays just as well live. The noir-ish duet explores the unachievable expectations of people in love and the symbolic weight of their injuries — “I can’t be the wound you wear to sleep, always.” Singing “If you let me be there again/ I’ll be still, won’t say a word,” Wasner and Herring are either trading promises of patience and equanimity or pleading against lost time.
On the Water breathes with cinematic energy. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the rapturous album highlight, “Give Us The Wind,” which finds the band at its most Romantic, in the capital-R, literary sense. “Don’t bless me/ We don’t want your blessing,” Herring howls. “Give me the pen/ Give me the sword/ Let me cut away the darkness, and pin it to the wall.” The transitional spaces of the album are filled with little ambient moments that lend credence to the idea that On the Water orbits around a concept, which is not to say it’s a concept album. “On the Water,” the song, begins with what sounds like clinking dishes; you’ll hear rolling surf in several tracks.
One of the more unexpected numbers begins this way. On “Tybee Island,” Herring enters unaccompanied, underpinned with the sound of the ocean: “No illusions, no replays/ Heads are watching, currents wave/ Bodies huddle birthing flame/ I’m a watchman, I’m a slave.” He sounds a bit like a lonely sap on a beach somewhere, and the lyrics are anything but hopeful, until he’s carried up on a pillow of synths. And in the end, that elevation may be the clearest message on the album and the firmest embodiment yet of their self-described post-wave sound — a merger of post-rock mood and new wave kinetics. With only two instrumentalists, they hold up Herring’s heady, gruff emotionalism with more sonic thickness than they have any right to. The thrillingly precarious result is, appropriately, a future-affirming statement that weds the spirits of the past with the ghosts in the machine. “We’ve been here before,” the last track begins, before a hazy litany of snapshots about performing and listening to music. It’s either an existential dilemma or a celebration of cosmic circularity, and by implicating themselves in the dilemma, Future Islands have landed on terra incognita, and it’s an exciting discovery.