Pretty much exactly what I expected, but for once, that’s not a knock against the album. Future Islands proved their synthpop aptitude with 2014’s Singles, and “Seasons (Waiting On You)” still holds up as one of the best pop songs of the past five years. On The Far Field, the band doesn’t go anywhere new, but they haven’t started treading water just yet. (Perhaps if that happens in the future, they should try and swim to the nearest island…eh? Eh?)
In case you weren’t aware, John Congleton is one of the best producers in the music business at the moment (he’s a frequent collaborator with Explosions in the Sky, St. Vincent, and more recently Swans), and he’s one of the main reasons this album works as well as it does. The production on this album is an absolute bliss to listen to. Each individual synth sounds warm in its own way, and every bass line is front and center in the mix without overpowering the rest of the instruments. It sounds amazing, and Congleton deserves every bit of the credit.
That’s not to say that the songs are lacking—far from it. It’s true that there isn’t much variety in the compositions, and the lyrics aren’t anything to write home about (odd for a group so apparently indebted to Theodore Roethke, if the title of this album and their 2008 LP In Evening Air are anything to go by), but this band has one huge thing going for them: they have indie pop songwriting down to an art. There’s an appealing breeziness to each of these tracks so that even the least interesting ones have such an acute sense of pacing that they manage to hold my attention through every listen. Debbie Harry even gets a guest spot on “Shadows”, and it’s nice to hear her back in her element for the first time in a while, even if the two singers clash a bit in their duet.
On that note, a gripe: while Samuel Herring’s stage antics are legendary, and he’s by all accounts a great frontman, I’m not the biggest fan of his voice, which comes off as overly affected most of the time. “Time On Her Side” is the worst offender here—overtones of “Seasons (Waiting On You), Pt. 2” in the songwriting notwithstanding, his vocal performance on the track is vaguely accented for some indiscernible reason. (I had to watch a few interviews to confirm that he doesn’t speak like that normally.) The album’s sequencing is also a little off. “Aladdin” is a wonderful song, with a very pretty synth string arrangement complementing its driving bass line, but as an opening track, I’d have preferred something less subdued (“North Star” would have been a good contender). More glaringly, the synth pads that open “Cave” and “Through the Roses” sound nearly identical; they’re both good songs in their own right, but as consecutive tracks the effect is off-putting.
All in all, though, most of the criticisms you could level at this album apply just as much to Singles, and the best aspects of their previous work are just as present as they ever have been. Nothing on The Far Field is comparable to the sheer synthpop perfection of “Seasons (Waiting On You)”, but few things are, and Future Islands prove on this release that they have some serious staying power. “Formulaic” isn’t usually a compliment, but why complain when the formula is this solid? B