At the risk of exaggeration, Future Islands was probably the best thing that happened to me in 2014. I was one of many who had committed the egregious error of generally ignoring them prior to their now-legendary network TV debut on The Late Show with Dave Letterman in March of that year. I still remember how electrifying that first performance was – the driving opening chords of the group’s beautiful, anthemic “Seasons (Waiting on You)”; the synthpop sound that hearkened to another age yet felt totally modern; and frontman Sam T. Herring two-stepping across the stage, screeching, bellowing, punching the air, thumping his chest and staring into the audience’s very soul. It was a captivating spectacle, equal parts disorienting and really, really cool.
With “Seasons” and its superb mother album Singles (which I naturally declared the best of 2014 in my end-of-year list), the Baltimorean trio captured our attention. Its follow-up, The Far Field, then, represents their attempt to retain it. To put it lightly, they succeed in spectacular fashion. Those expecting a departure from their previous work will be sorely disappointed. However, those who’ve come to know and adore the power and beauty of their music will find the new record a veritable feast for the ears.
As was true for Singles, each track on The Far Field (the title a nod to the Theodore Roethke poetry collection of the same name, as was 2010’s In Evening Air) is a miniature drama, bursting with euphoric energy; even the saddest tunes shoot up towards the heavens. Herring, as always, sells the dear sweet screaming shit out of every syllable he utters – snarling, crooning, enunciating viciously, throwing in the occasional grindcore shriek. Sam could be likened easily to any number of expressive rock vocalists, but for me, the figure that comes most readily to mind is Meat Loaf. I think back to the first time I heard Bat Out of Hell and how awestruck I was by his voice. You could feel his raw magnetism shredding through your speakers; he made even cornball phrases like “You’ve been cold to me so long, I’m cryin’ icicles instead of tears” sound convincing. Herring works similar wonders with his vocal delivery and performance style. Not a word passes his lips that’s without meaning, that isn’t felt in every atom of his body.
But while Herring may steal the show at the band’s live performances, their studio efforts give his fellow Future Islanders a chance to shine. Garrit Welmers, channeling the best and most adventurous of 80s New Wave, crafts lovely, intoxicating synth universes on each track, while William Cashion’s driving bass propels everything forward and keeps Herring’s soaring vocals tethered to Earth’s atmosphere. They’re as much a delicate, meticulously crafted formula as they are a band; take one element out of the equation, and the whole thing crumbles.
The album begins by fading into “Aladdin,” our regularly scheduled Future Islands song, already in progress – a simple but effective synth hook enveloped by lush long tones, drum and bass keeping steady, thumping time. Herring then launches headfirst into a poetic diatribe, describing his relationship with a lost love in terms of nature while showcasing his unique talent for internal rhyme (“I’ve seen the beaches, breached the peak of ‘please’ and ‘thanks’/I’ve seen my features age, my fingers strange”). Like that titular treasure-seeker, Herring is trying to decide whether the riches he found were mere illusions. By the end of the song, he pointedly concludes, straining to hit the highest notes he can, that “love is real/Our love is real/It’s a hand, it’s a hold, it’s a shield.” It’s not as dynamic an opening as “Seasons,” but it’s still thoroughly stirring and enrapturing.
Even by Future Islands’ standards, these songs feel remarkably personal. Herring, bearer of a known predilection for breaking down in the midst of live performances and giving his audience quick emotional pep talks, provides us with several vivid, often painful windows into his soul. The autobiographical nature of his lyrics gives him more to feel, which makes the songs themselves exude more emotion in turn. He dedicates much of his energy here to meditating on his relationships with others and how life on the road can decay those relationships over time. The gorgeous, majestic “Time on Her Side” finds him accepting that his departed lover is free (“so free, it’s sublime”) to choose her own path in life, as angelic, soul-rocking synth tones and chiming percussion blast readily into action. On lead single “Ran” (which happens to sound eerily similar to “Seasons” in pretty much every way), he sounds a bit more mournful, howling, “What’s a song without you/When every song I write is about you?” He yearns to reconnect with nature – and by extension, with the loved ones he’s drifted away from – on “Ancient Water” and “Day Glow Fire.” In so many words and with so much chutzpah, he’s really just expressing his desire for what most humans want: connection.
Herring’s emotional nakedness reaches its apex during “Through the Roses.” As Welmers’ synths float breathily around him, he speaks at length about his struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts – “the temptation to look inside [his] wrist”. In other words, no matter how convincing Herring’s electric stage presence may be, when you take away “the lights and the smoke and the screen,” he’s just a normal guy – nervous, terrified, unsure of himself, trying to navigate this fucked-up, confusing world we’re stuck on. He further ponders the inner workings of his troubled mind on the melancholy “Cave,” which explores the disillusion and loss of self he experiences in the wake of a breakup: “Is this a desperate wish for dying/Or a wish that dying cease?/The fear that keeps me going…is the same fear that brings me to my knees/I don’t believe anymore.” Herring obviously isn’t the first to unpack such emotions on record, but the sheer vulnerability and conviction with which he does so makes it truly unique.
And what self-respecting Meat-Loafian synthpop epic would dare to omit space for a rip-roaring, eleventh-hour boy-girl duet? That moment comes in the form of the driving “Shadows,” wherein Ms. Debbie Harry – herself at one time the queen-regent of New Wave – plays Ellen Foley to Herring’s Meat, urging him to “break free” from the darkness that holds him captive. Harry is perfect for the part, her ageless, ethereal voice an ideal counterpoint for Herring’s impassioned yowls. Together, they manage to make the song impressively sincere while reveling in its inherent goofiness.
But wait, I’m frequently tempted to tell myself. Didn’t they just use that exact same drumbeat/synth pattern/key three songs ago? And several more times on other albums? This is bullshit. I shouldn’t be enjoying this. This is base, vapid regurgitation. They’re just doing the same song over and over. Maybe so, but goddamn, is it a fucking great song. Sure, Field may essentially be twelve slight variations on a long-established signature sound (the possible exception being the tender, ultra-slowed-down reggae-cum-lounge ballad “Candles”), but the group infuses every moment on the record with enough charisma and genuine feeling to make it work – and then some.
Future Islands are a group that traffics in feeling – their success stems largely from the passionate appeal to the heartstrings and souls of their listeners they make in their music. More specifically, it’s their uncanny ability to mine pure joy, hope and goodness from the darkest depths of human experience – as they do plenty of times on the marvelous, sweeping Field – that makes them not just a good band, but a great one. As Herring puts it, bringing an auspicious end to the otherwise sorrowful “Through the Roses”: “We can pull through together, together, together, together.” Here’s hoping we do. (9.1/10)