Despite its name, Future Islands is very much a thing of the past.
The Baltimore trio borrows everything from the iconic ’80s synth-pop era and adds a modern twist, namely in the form of singer Samuel T. Herring’s husky, ardent vocals. Musically, the group is a replica of the somewhat hackneyed scene, but Herring pushes it through to success with his unique flair.
That’s not to say that keyboardist Gerrit Welmers and guitarist/bassist William Cashion are dismissible, as they do a good job of setting the tone of the songs, but they typically fall behind a bit and become backup music.
This subtle combination is why Singles, Future Islands’ fourth LP, is a cut above the rest. The group’s impassioned TV debut on David Letterman earlier this month is more than proof of its skills, but the album gets even better than the jaw-dropping, dance move-inspiring performance that attracted a plethora of new fans and amped up expectations for old ones.
The three-piece played its lead single “Seasons (Waiting On You),” which is also the first track on the album. It’s catchy and fun, but the real appeal comes when Herring kicks off into his lively, intoxicating spectacle. His vocals are thick and throaty, coexisting wonderfully with the feathery musicianship. The unimpressive lyrics are the only downfall of the singable track—and for some other parts of the album—but that is made irrelevant by the music’s charm.
Herring further proves his talent as he travels between his higher vocals and a comely, low grumble. A lot of the songs have this contrast, making the riveting, soulful parts all the better.
“Back in the Tall Grass,” which also has catchy bass and synth riffs, shows the singer’s flexibility as he transforms the song from a mellow jam to a vibrant hit. The nostalgic lyrics are enhanced by the surreal scene Welmers and Cashion set up with simple drums and shimmering synths, creating a dream-like feel that traces back to the innocence of early childhood. The climax comes as Herring sings, “You look like a rose/especially a long way from home,” showing us the first glimpse of the vocal mayhem to come later in the song.
As Singles progresses, the band gets more passionate and bold.
“Light House” is fiery while still maintaining the dancey aspect of all of the other songs, and despite the misleading intro to “Like the Moon,” that song, too, is an explosive masterpiece.
This perpetual improvement upon the previous song hits its peak on the second-to-last track, “Fall From Grace.” It’s the best example of Welmer and Cashion’s skills as songwriters, and Herring’s startling vocal versatility blows the rest of the album out of the water.
At the end of the first verse comes an epic, guttural scream by the previously composed singer as the music explodes into a cacophonous mess, regaining control as soon as it’s over. The outbreak comes as a surprise, and is uncharacteristic of the genre, but it’s one of the highlights of Singles and should have been toyed with more. Later in the song, another new element appears: a gritty guitar solo by Cashion, a feature that would have complemented other tracks as well.
Future Islands show that the ’80s are not dead, and in fact can be done better than the original pioneers did themselves. Singles manages to be invigorating and emotional while still remaining beautiful and keeping calm, setting it apart as the band’s magnum opus.
Future Islands – Singles tracklist:
- “Seasons (Waiting On You)”
- “Sun in the Morning”
- “Back in the Tall Grass”
- “A Song for Our Grandfathers”
- “Light House”
- “Like the Moon”
- “Fall From Grace”
- “A Dream of You and Me”