Review: Future Islands, Singles

Singles, Future Islands' finest album yet, is rich and spellbinding.

opinion byBENJI TAYLOR < @BenjiTaylorMade >

The “manopuase”: that curious time in a man’s life when, burdened with a heady sense of his own mortality, and acutely conscious of the legacy he’ll bequeath to posterity, he arrives at a cross-roads where he must decide: What kind of Man do I want to be?  Samuel T Herring - prophet and frontman for Baltimore synth-pop outfit Future Islands - has hit this point in his life earlier than most men. Resultantly, the existential angst that comes with the shadow of age looms large throughout Singles. But in asking himself and his band this very question, Future Islands have answered by crafting the most exciting LP of their flickering, fluttering eight year career.

There’s an element of theatricality behind the songs on Singles, but you only need witness Herring’s recent electrifying performance on Letterman to see his extraordinary confidence and passion - there’s nothing contrived about these ten tracks. Lead single "Seasons (Waiting on You)" opens the album and establishes the template, sonically and thematically, for the rest of the LP. It’s a heart-rending, blistering, electronic paean to a fragmenting relationship -  flawlessly forged from swooning synths, undulating bass and Herring’s rich, emotive, molten-silver vocals.

Fittingly for a band whose moniker references chronology and nature, Singles’ chief thematic preoccupations are the passage of time, and the permanence of nature in the face of such inevitable change. His slick moves on Letterman might suggest otherwise, but Herring is getting older, and Singles is a kaleidoscopic fire-storm born from the glut of frustrations that amass as the boundless promises of youth slowly fade away.

These frustrations reach their zenith on the eerie, haunting, and downright outstanding "Fall From Grace": “Now I'm older, turning white, watching days turn into nights/ Now I'm older and I'm grave, tell me, what's been left to save?” Herring’s vocals are nothing short of transcendent as he yelps and yowls his way through the song, breaking down and screeching at the bridge: “Before you go please tell me/ Was it all inside of me?”

It’s this impending sense of doom that makes the LP so dissonantly bittersweet: “I've seen the way that bodies lie and bodies tend to break” he laments on "Light House." Elsewhere, with their sky-scraping choruses and 80s sci-fi synth backdrops, "Doves" and "Sun in the Morning" form the LP’s  more characteristically upbeat tracks – but  Herring still infuses his vocals with enough yearning to trigger a pang of sorrow.

It’s far from all soul-ache and heartbreak though; Future Islands find solace from the passage of time in the intimacy and immediacy of love – often using  the powerful imagery of nature to convey love’s enduring qualities. The sun is a frequently used symbol for the redemptive power of affection, notably  on "Sun in the Morning"; as is the sea, on "Spirit," and on glorious album closer "A Dream of You and Me." Despite the swirling melancholy and churning undercurrent of sadness, there’s a hopeful optimism in Herring’s concession that “beauty lies in every soul”, and his wistful intonation on the lead single that “when people change, they gain a piece but they lose one too…”

Musically, William Cashion’s driving bass guitar lines seem destined to be the unsung hero of Singles, providing a fulcrum on which Gerrit Welmers’ glimmering synths and Herring’s nuanced, textured, gravelly vocals - beautifully weathered by time and tide - can pivot. There’s an otherworldly quality to Herring’s voice too – as if he really belongs as the villain in some far-off fantasy world, barking orders to orcs in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, or commanding flying monkeys in L Frank Baum’s Oz.

In PMA’s recent review of MØ’s No Mythologies To Follow, Jean-Luc Marsh called synth-pop a “tired beast… [requiring] innovation on the part of the artist in order to remain relevant—and riveting—in the internet age.” It’s a significant statement given the current resurgence in synth-based sounds. Future Islands are remaining relevant by crafting stimulating, quirky, synth-laden music that fuses the arcane with the universal; there's a depth and complexity to their sound that's lacking in many of their peers. Singles is sometimes stark, and sometimes surprising – but its key constant is that it’s rarely short of spellbinding. B+