It’s not entirely accurate to say that retro-technopop band Future Islands owes its success to one memorable appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman; but it’s true that everything that happened onstage during that four minutes at the Ed Sullivan Theater on March 3, 2014, illustrates how a band that toiled in relative obscurity for nearly a decade could suddenly become a sensation. The song Future Islands performed, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” is a rare pop gem, synthesizing dreamy post-punk and surging disco into an exultant, romantic anthem. And on Letterman, frontman Samuel T. Herring put on a real show—pounding his chest, swaying his arms, swiveling his hips, staring intently at the audience between lyrics, and dropping his voice down to a monster growl during some of the more intense moments. Standing still, Herring looked like a reserved, somewhat nerdy middle-aged guy with a receding hairline. In motion, he was a preacher, a brute, a dynamo. He was absolutely riveting.
The only downside to the album containing “Seasons” is that it’s all sound, no visuals. The songs on Singles are simple, snappy, and open-hearted—the repertoire of a band who’s gigged enough to understand how best to work a crowd. The music’s the foundation for the live performances, intelligently designed to reverberate equally in intimate club settings and at the big outdoor festivals that Future Islands would be playing around the world regularly by the end of its Letterman year.
The Far Field, Future Island’s Singles follow-up and fifth LP overall, is every bit as catchy as its predecessor, but it also shows more depth and variety. The songs on Singles are all individually boffo, coming across—as the title declares—like 10 potential chart hits. The Far Field is more of a start-to-finish experience, the 12 tracks building on each other to generate a larger feeling of grandeur. It lays back a bit, letting bassist-guitarist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers weave softer, more intricate textures beneath drummer Michael Lowry’s steady beat and Herring’s throaty yelps.
The record’s more subtle bent is evident from the start, with the slow rise of opener “Aladdin,” which is followed immediately by the equally genteel “Time On Her Side,” a song that doesn’t really start to pick up momentum and begin to bloom until its final minute. The Far Field’s third track (and first single), “Ran,” is more in the Singles mold and is the kind of number that would’ve kicked that album off if “Seasons” hadn’t already taken its spot. In classic Future Islands style, “Ran” proceeds like a series of short declarative statements—delivered via elliptical lyrics and hooky, interwoven melodic lines—that develops into a full-fledged argument when it hits the chorus and all the pieces coalesce and intensify. The case “Ran” makes is that we can’t get far on our own. The sound alone sells that story.
Future Islands’ music is undeniably derivative. The Far Field’s strongest stretch is its final five tracks, which each ape the sounds of the ’80s British pop charts in fairly specific ways. “Ancient Water” brings back the bass-as-lead-guitar approach of The Cure and New Order. “Candles” applies spacey OMD synths to the kind of ballad that some lovestruck Chicago-based movie character would listen to while edging closer to the boy or girl of his or her dreams. “Day Glow Fire” gallops along like “I Ran,” then adds an “I Melt With You”-like layer of nostalgic sentiment as Herring recalls, “We used to talk until the sun come up.” On “Shadows,” Blondie’s Debbie Harry pops up as a guest vocalist, responding to the first verse with a rebuttal, just like in Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” The achingly beautiful album-closer “Black Rose” recalls vintage Prefab Sprout with its airiness and its yearning for companionship.
None of these songs are direct copies of what came before; and it’s entirely possible that none of the members of Future Islands were directly influenced by any of the acts listed above. There’s a common feel there though—a shared sense of the dramatic, and an honest effort to use electronic instruments and minimalist musical patterns to create the kind of roomy sonic space where a human could live.
Herring in particular has never been hesitant to admit that he has ambitions to make something at once immediate and timeless. After the Letterman gig and the success of Singles, the previously little-known band from Baltimore was suddenly being interviewed in publications around the world, giving Herring a chance to explain his unusual stage presence. To Pitchfork, he said, “I physically work hard on stage to get mouths to drop, bring people in, and to catch them off guard… We come out and people don’t really know what to expect—and then we launch into this big music.” To The Guardian, he said that the goal is “to open up the audience by opening up yourself… The feeling we’re trying to create in our shows is to kind of poke at people. It’s just like, ‘Move! Get going! Do something!’ Feel something, take my hand, hold on to that person beside you, feel this energy, you know. That’s the hope. It’s all a hope.”
Singles was designed to amp up the pop hooks and reach people wherever they may be, logistically and emotionally. Having conquered that challenge, The Far Field attempts to hit some of those same notes but with more nuance and more old-fashioned studio polish. Recorded at Sunset Sound with producer John Congleton (and aided by Patrick McMinn for the occasional strings and horns), the album is filled with songs like “Cave,” where the carefully fussed-over music provides a strong, machine-boosted pulse, while Herring brings the untamed heart. The raw passion of Future Island’s past work still dominates, but with more complexity in the arrangements, and more push and pull in the ongoing dialogue between the voice and the instruments behind it.
This is where Herring thrives: in conversational mode, as on “Through The Roses,” where he starts off calmly and quietly articulating how it feels to be a physical human presence in the world, then gradually adds more energy and tunefulness to his train of thought. From the start, Future Islands has been all about the surprise attack, which gets harder to pull off as the shtick becomes better known. But the reasons behind the method are unchanged. What the band’s albums say, over and over, is that the people making these sounds are every bit as fragile as the people listening to them. And there’s an important corollary there: As the songs strengthen, so may we.
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