Unless you aspire to becoming a 21st century Unabomber (come on, it’s crossed your mind) and live in a remote wood cabin, far from the corrupting tentacles of electricity, you’ll have had a damn hard time recently avoiding Baltimore three-piece, Future Islands.
Notwithstanding their now infamous performance (passionately eccentric, or deeply weird, depending on the generosity of your indulgence) on The Late Show with David Letterman, Singles is Future Islands‘ debut release (albeit their 4th LP) for a major label, and has seen them receive a large amount of radio and press exposure. Adding to their pop-cultural momentum, the band also became the toast of this year’s SXSW, garlanded with the respected 2014 Grulke Prize for Developing US Act. (Damon Albarn won the Career Award for Non US Act).
The Letterman appearance also marked their network television debut, and it would be hard to imagine a more memorable emergence into mainstream recognition. Future Islands‘ performance of single ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’ became an immediate web phenomenon, frontman Samuel T. Herring seemingly demonically possessed with passion and soulful intensity, howling and barking, stomping and sliding around the stage with a wide-eyed and compelling magnetism. Herring managed to convey both fiery power and a striking vulnerability, the whole scene left the audience feeling like they’d been allowed to witness some deeply private ritual of dark incantation/groove freak-out.
Singles (possibly a reference to the broken heart beating within these songs, or to the break-out commercial intent of their first major-label offering) doesn’t wander too far from the template established with lead single, ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’. Driven by slick and fluttering basslines, precise electro beats and warm 80’s R&B synths, it is Herring’s voice that remains their most powerful and idiosyncratic instrument.
Despite the band’s current hip cache, Future Islands‘ lyrics are absent of any hipster posturing. Nakedly heartfelt and clear, they read like tender pastoral poems. The polished sheen of the electro aesthetic is juxtaposed against the rural, often gothic landscapes within these songs, and with the frequently ragged theatricality of Herring’s voice.
Penultimate track ‘Fall From Grace’ finds Herring finally opening up the full-throated throttle of his fearsome lungs, achieving angry beauty as he screams “was it all in me?” while ruminating on the death of love. Despite this apparent desolation, final track ‘A Dream of You and Me’ sees the return of a certain optimism (“People lie, people love, people go/But beauty lies in every soul”).
There’s something weirdly Phantom of the Opera about Samuel T. Herring, something reclusive and vaguely sinister. He can be huskily gruff, gently raw, elegantly expansive, soulful and occasionally demonic, a suspicion is aroused that this man spends his winters moonlighting with death-metal bands in some dark Norwegian forest. This is a singer who loves to hurl his voice through the register, and you’re never quite sure what kind of noise is going to issue from his mouth.
This eccentric power makes Singles an intriguing album and sees Future Islands consolidating the sound they have long established as their signature. The sometimes overwrought emotional force of the vocals is balanced by the beautifully clean synth-pop on which they are built.
Singles by Future Islands is out now on 4AD.