Album Review: Future Islands- Singles
My very first thought when listening to the new album from Future Islands was that this is what it would sound like if Elton John fronted an indie rock band.
Let that sink in for a little, and maybe listen to the opening track off of Singles, “Seasons (Waiting on You),” and maybe you’ll begin to understand what I mean.
Or maybe you won’t. Whatever.
My only other experience with the Baltimore based group up until this point was their song “Tomorrow,” a track that I originally heard on the Friends Records 2011 cassette compilation. The version appearing on that collection was recorded live for KEXP radio—it’s unhinged, unsettling, incredibly powerful, and very unique. I had never really heard anything like Future Islands’ frontman Samuel Herring’s voice—it’s both soulful and growly, but there’s also a moment where he cackles maniacally but reels it back in and continues singing—it straddles the line of being both bizarre and wonderful at the same moment.
A year later, the band released a proper studio version of “Tomorrow,” and even when enlisting fellow B-More musician Jenn Wasner on back up vocals, the band was unable to match the sheer ferocity of that live performance.
Future Islands are known, I guess, for this kind of charismatic and terrifyingly theatrical affect though—as their recent performance on“Letterman” indicates.
Singles is a step up to the big leagues for a band that has been toiling with a cult following for years. Their previous full-length effort, On The Water, was released in 2011 via Thrill Jockey. Now the band finds themselves on the well-respected 4AD—former home of St. Vincent, and current home of The National and Deerhunter to name a few.
In my Google Play music library, Singles is classified as “indie pop,” and I suppose that is accurate. They are a very synth heavy band, pulling not so much style straight from the 1980s, but their sound owes a lot to pop music created 30 years ago. At times you hear hints of modern “dance rock,” but overall, there’s a very “soft” or “lite” rock feel—like this would not be out of place on a yacht.
Singles is an interesting album in the sense that it is both dynamic without being dynamic—and what I mean by that is musically, there is little no on variation, and this tends to start to sound the same by the second track, but that Herring’s huge vocal range and unique delivery continually tries to make this an interesting listen. But Herring’s voice can also prove to be Future Island’s fatal flaw—he is so earnest and theatrical at times that Singles can come off a little silly sounding.
It’s a smart move opening the album with “Seasons,” because it’s the catchiest of this batch of songs, and easily the most listenable. I hesitate to say that if you hear this song, then you have heard the rest of the record, but it does kind of serve as a mission statement, or thesis statement, if you will, for the overall vibe on Singles.
It’s also the song, as well as on “Sunlight in The Morning,” where Herring channels Elton John the most—I’m talking late 80s and 90s Elton John, with the bombast of “Healing Hands,” or things off of Made in England. Maybe the comparison is a bit of a stretch, but it was my initial reaction to hearing “Seasons,” and I can’t seem to shake it.
Structurally, Singles is frontloaded with more up-tempo tracks, while the back five primarily slows things down—the tracks “Lighthouse,” “Like The Moon,” and “A Song for Our Grandfathers” slither along with the emphasis on a strong bass groove. “A Song for Our Grandfathers” also contains one of the most 80s pop sounding moments on the record—not that it’s a bad thing; its just very present.
The final portion of the album also includes one of the strangest moments—on “Fall From Grace,” Herring drops the theatricality and pomp from his voice, and lets loose a larynx shredding scream that brings to mind shouty acts like the Deftones or Glassjaw at their most intense and volatile. It’s a surprising turn, unlike nothing else on the record, and if it’s meant to be jarring to the ears—then it worked.
Singles is far from being a bad record, but aside from the slight novelty of Herring’s unpredictability, there is little to make it a meaningful listen. I feel like a band like Future Islands, for me anyway, is best taken in small doses. Perhaps that why I enjoyed “Tomorrow” so much when I heard it the first time, so many years ago. That was my only point of reference for the band until now. There’s nothing here that creeps along the same way alluring and unsettling way.
I suppose by the end, Singles comes off as a pop album for adults. It’s more grown up than any Top 40 pop music. Lyrically, when you can make out what Herring is saying through his incredibly thick pronunciation, it certainly isn’t as vapid as, say, anything from Katy Perry’s last album, but these lyrics aren’t life affirming by any stretch of the imagination. However, there does seem to be common themes that run throughout the course of Singles. The ideas of sunlight, morning, and waiting (for what, I’m not sure) appear more than once. Musically, it is arguably catchier—the songs themselves may not be, like, super memorable in the end, but the hooks stay with you, which indicates Future Islands, aside from wacky dance moves on “Letterman,” are doing something right.