Future Islands Singles

[4AD; 2014]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: post-punk, new romance, cheese rock
Others: Dan Deacon, Meat Loaf, Spandau Ballet

Samuel T. Herring provides what is arguably the most concise review of his band’s fourth album on its very first track: “People change/ But you know that some people never do.” Like pretty much all Future Islands songs, the song is about a lover in the losing, about fatalism and death, and, in synthesis, about relationships as a metonymy for the endings of all things. But on “Seasons (Waiting on You),” there’s enough evidence to read into the song a different meaning, to hear the song as Herring’s justification for making an appeal to a broader audience. Change is something that either occurs or doesn’t occur; there’s no false binary here, both natural according to him.

The fabric of Future Islands’ sound remains much the same on Singles as it has been since before Future Islands, when the band was known as Art Lord & the Self-Portraits. Herring’s melodramatic growl still forms the shape of the outfit, his voice draped, as ever, in sweeping, moody, and sentimental synthscapes, with the chunky, post-punk bass line stitching those two disparate elements together.

But on the other hand, the production on “Seasons” is noticeably crisper and altogether less dusty than it has been in the past, Herring’s vocals, forever dialed to life-or-death urgency, is pitched higher, smoothed and sanded down from a near Waits-ian snarl to an archetypical New Romantic croon. Plus, there are strings — not just unplugged instruments, but strings — near the end of the song. When the chorus kicks in, it’s hard to deny a newfound propulsion, a sense that Future Islands are, for the first time, playing to the rafters.

This implies an audience of considerable size, which is indeed a big change for Future Islands. Whereas in the past they performed to sparse crowds in 200-capacity bars, they’re now selling out venues triple the size. Since moving from Thrill Jockey to 4AD, they made their late-night network TV debut and inspired Tumblr memes and normcore think pieces. This is a change that transcends aesthetics, a change that few reasonable people would deny. For a band whose origins are rooted in the plasticine, tinny, and not quite post-irony Baltimore scene, Future Islands’ trajectory is most unexpected. No matter how many tours they take with Ed Schrader in tow, they’ve traveled a long way from Wham City.

The band’s evolution has taken place with few concessions made to the growing crowds that now receive them, but nevertheless, change is everywhere on Singles, and it would be disingenuous to deny such a thing. Just as the tortured, gothic romanticism of In Evening Air gave way to On the Water’s post-impressionist, bordering-on-chillwave aesthetic, the tributaries of both now feed into a broader, blue-eyed body of influence. Whereas in the past they were a difficult band to categorize or compare, Singles almost dares you to utter such embarrassing names as Fine Young Cannibals, Simply Red, and Spandau Ballet. By and large, the comparison is flattering.

On the record’s more traditionally structured songs, such as “Doves,” “Spirit,” and “Light House,” the gestures toward accessibility also anchor them to new regions of influence, such as Motown, northern soul, and prog-folk, respectively. There is also a sense that Future Islands are fearless not only when it comes to the unveiling of a soul’s darkness, but also in terms of unfettered emotionalism in all forms, even those usually deemed to be outdated or gauche.

That said, there are moments when these comparisons become unflattering. Toward the end of “Sun in the Morning,” Herring sings “She feeds me daily soul” with what could be described as a fake-patois, and it sounds like a stubborn, deluded denial of his genre’s azure hue. If this sort of misstep is recent to Future Islands, it’s not like this is anything new to the genre itself. After all, the history of blue-eyed soul, and post-impressionism for that matter, is rife with examples of minstrel imitations and primitivist misappropriations.

Another, altogether different misstep occurs later, on “Fall From Grace,” the record’s climax and penultimate track. There, Herring takes a cue from turn-of-the-millennium nu-metal, eschewing his wounded, Byronic croon in favor of a very commonplace screamo sort of scream. Although the song is otherwise lovely, those brief, jagged vocal interjections bring with them unwelcome reminders of other tangential antecedents — Jack Black’s macho-erotic histrionics, Jason Segel’s Dracula puppet-song from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Meat Loaf, made-up as Beast in the video for “I’d Do Anything For Love” — which worm their way into the rest of Herring’s less pedestrian theatrics. By the time the record ends, with “A Dream of You and Me,” on a comparably subdued note, the listener is still working to shake off these reminders. A spectre of insincerity has long haunted the corners of Future Islands’ music, but if theirs happens to be a work of self-parody, then in that case, what a work it is. Questions of sincerity beg acknowledgements of the method-level quality of the performance.

But no matter the ways Future Islands have changed, these flaws are also reminders that they’re still very much the same band they’ve always been. Their two most recent records played at greatness, while also falling prey to dilution. There was always excess padding, fat untrimmed. But these kinds of flaws were part of what made them so endearing. The less polished they were, the easier it was to ignore the performative element of their act.

And if they’ve finally trimmed the fat, Future Islands still have yet to figure out how so sustain their vision, successfully, over the length of an entire album. In this way, Singles leaves the listener in much the same state as their other records: loving what exists, warts and all, yet still gazing expectantly toward what remains to be seen. Despite whatever changes have occurred, superficial, contextual, or otherwise, Future Islands have retained those things that have benefited them from inception: their sense of urgency, keen ear for drama, and their unrealized potential. Let’s hope that some things keep changing, and that some things never do.

Links: Future Islands - 4AD

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