A couple of weeks ago, a friend shared this video with me, more as something of a curio than as must see content.
Since then, I have watched it countless times and forced as many people as possible to do the same. There is something unique and vital in this performance. The vocalist, Samuel Herring, looks like an anti-matter universe Marlon Brando playing a tightly wound accountant whose side hobby band happened to end up performing for David Letterman. Instantly meme worthy, this odd Tom Hardy Bane Voice meets Tom Jones lounge act transcends some of the humor inherent in nakedly baring oneself in public.The subtle ferocity of his stage presence, the unfettered emotion, all lost qualities, harken back to an era that may or may not have ever existed. We, as a culture, are long past the point where new musical acts use television time on late night talk shows to breakthrough to the mainstream. Luckily, Future Islands aren’t a new act and mainstream acceptance doesn’t seem to be their goal.
“Seasons (Waiting On You)” is the first Future Islands song I ever heard, and its the opening track on their new full length, Singles. The album feels like a smartly curated collection of just that, single songs each capable of standing on their own, potential radio anthems for a time and a place that exists nowhere but some forgotten part of our hearts. Delightfully out of time, Future Islands sounds like a cool, electronic Phil Collins cover band, something your best friend’s dad might have do with his coworkers in the basement, pretending they’re really playing fantasy football.
In my experience, Synth pop tends to sound more fun than the majority of Singles, but rarely is it more potent, its emotive heft more palpable. The seeming simplicity of the drum programming and the chill vibe of the bass riffs paint a calming, if angular background for Herring’s pained, hopeful ballads. For some reason a lot of modern music this drenched in synthetic pastiche feels the need to slather on a thick layer of winking nostalgia, and this band seems comfortable enough in the stories they tell and the pictures they paint not to need to bother. There’s something touching and comforting in this level of earnestness.
Much of that rests on the mutability of Herring’s voice, and the band’s ability to shift gears to match and enhance his mercurial tenor. He might be one of the most dynamic vocalists working in any genre of music right now. His strained intonations on “Spirit” and “Light House” imply at least a passing Morrissey influence, a very human, loving charisma brightening the melancholy of the lyrics. Elsewhere, on “Doves,” he turns up the energy a few notches, floating effortlessly over plinking keys and brassy flourishes. On “Fall From Grace” his voice becomes more coarse and shrill, somewhere between grunge and Meatloaf, until it breaks into a monstrous rasp.
The first few listens, there was a sense of homogeneity, as songs bled into one another, but subsequent spins presented a more interesting project. Singles makes for great background music, its easy listening nature something to be passively consumed, but the more I listen to every song, each relentlessly catchy in it’s own way, the more impressed I become with the body of work as a whole. The lyricism isn’t ground breaking, but Herring’s songcraft is effective. You’ll find yourself singing clips of phrases to yourself, emphatically, and with mixed feelings. The closing track “A Dream of You and Me” quickly became one of my favorites, and it seems every listen engenders a different feeling. The word choice vague enough for one’s subconscious to play emotional fill in the blank, but pointed enough to evoke a specificity of intent.
Listening to this album, I found myself wrestling with images of loss and yearning unrelated to any of my own personal experiences, and picturing scenes from nonexistent John Hughes films. Future Islands makes music that would score the teen movies of your dreams, or accompany you on a long, rueful car ride. Herring’s voice is a vessel that whisks you off to some sort of soulful superstream of the American subconscious. Its hard to put the effect these songs have on you, but grasping for those words illuminates the force with which Herring pounds his own chest in that Letterman clip. Singles is music made to express that which can’t just be said. It must be felt.
Singles is out today digitally online and physically on 4AD Records.