Baltimore synth-pop group Future Islands found a new home on 4AD for their fourth LP, Singles. Though their prior years at Thrill Jockey have given us some incredible music over the years, whoever it is over at 4AD that got the wonderful task of marketing this band and this record for a Future Islands explosion in 2014 deserves a gold medal. There is literally no possible way we could have had a better lead up to this record. First, there was the Letterman show. Before that fateful evening, there were more than a few (possibly even Letterman himself) who hadn’t batted an eye at Future Islands, and literally overnight, we have memes making the social network rounds of Samuel Herring’s dance moves and Letterman raving for nights on end about how incredible the performance was. All of this, of course, led perfectly into SXSW, where Future Islands dominated without question. They received the 2014 Grulke Prize for outstanding performance and had conversations going at every other street corner in Austin. Then, the Monday after SXSW, we have a full album stream, spinning all the way up until album release on March 25. And the capper on it all is: Future Islands’ new album Singles is 100%, beginning to end, a work of pure pop brilliance. Get ready to hear this one a lot in the coming months, because Future Islands are rising from the faceless ooze of Indie rock purgatory and are headed for the top.
To start, Singles is top to bottom chock full of heart-breaking romantic tragedy, soundtracked by 80s synth pop dance magic. The combination finds a happy place somewhere between The Cure, OMD, The Smiths, and New Order, while all the time entirely its own bizarre, melancholy monster. If you’ve been paying attention to Future Islands’ past couple excellent records, this is nothing new. 2011′s On The Water showcased cuts like “Balance” and “Before The Bridge” that had you slipping on your own tears on the hard wood dance floor, while the toned back cuts like “Where I Found You” showed off Future Islands’ softer side in the form of melodramatic, grandiose, synthesized ballads. But Singles finds Future Islands brighter and tighter than ever. With their move to 4AD, the band’s production got a new set of eyes in the form of Chris Coady, who has brought his magic to many a great band including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear, and Beach House. Say goodbye to the buried vocals and fuzzy, 80s atmosphere of their past records. On Singles, Sam Herring is front and center, with William Cashion’s ear-worm bass lines up in your face and Gerrit Welmers’ synth magic more all-encompassing than ever. The shift in fidelity is day and night - Singles is how Future Islands were meant to sound.
The increased production budget is entirely well-deserved, though. The trio are giving us their best material here by a mile. Lead single “Seasons (Waiting On You)” opens the album with a light-hearted longing. Herring’s vocals reach to a pretty high chest voice for his atypically grisly range. It’s hard to describe Herring’s voice outside of some synonym for passionate. If you watch the band’s performance on Letterman, the man is more confessional than he would be admitting sins to a shrouded priest. The delivery has all of the stage aside theatrics of Morrissey without all the take it or leave it ultimatums. Nothing is overwrought with Herring, but all the while, every word feels like it weighs a ton. Meanwhile, Cashion and Welmers drive forward an easy and infectious hook that wins you over within seconds and builds in excellent harmonic structure. Overall, “Seasons” couldn’t be a better introduction to this next chapter for the band. But once we venture further, “Spirit” brings Cashion to sizzling levels and we see the band really rip the track apart before the laid back “Sun In The Morning” wins more points for general charm and groove.
As great as the openers are, the center of Singles is where you really lose all semblance of objection. “Doves” is the grooviest, most pop accessible hook Future Islands have put forward to this point. Don’t be surprised if you hear this on the radio for months to come. Herring belts his heart out like he’ll never had another chance. “There’s just a little too much on mind, and I’m begging you please, baby, don’t hurt no more.” Beyond the broken-hearted muse archetype that he loves to fill, there’s a lover who just wants to keep loving and climbing and growing, and that sentiment couldn’t be clearer on this track. Once again, Welmers and Cashion have assembled a dangerously addictive hook that will stick in your head for hours. And the new mix just refuses to be held back. After you’ve hit repeat several dozen times, “Back In The Tall Grass” puts goosebumps on your goosebumps within about twenty seconds. The track is a warm, synth banger that always feels like its about to melt your face off. But dammit, Future Islands are way too good for that, and the reserve held throughout nearly kills you with anticipation and pained yearning. Herring helps with that feeling. He longs for a lover in a far off land without much hope, but the memory and the longing for a return keeps him going. Then, just when you think it can’t get any better, “A Song For Our Grandfathers” fades in softly and carefully until Welmers’ synthesizer splits the air like a sword. The hook feels like a sunrise. “Don’t make ‘em wait - gotta go a long way. Let’s be brave”, Herring sings, reassuring himself knowing that he has people looking down on him and cheering him on. Taking a quick reprieve from giving us the best dance music for sad lovers, Future Islands tackle new horizons with relative ease.
Next up, “Lighthouse” showcases Herring’s suave, melodramatic crooner atmosphere more than any other on the record. The track beats forward with bright simplicity, while he screams from the bottom to the top of his vocal range about revealing his melancholy to a lover and told in response that it doesn’t possess him. “Like The Moon” gives us one really classic Future Islands track on the record without thinking too hard about progression and size and impact and all that. Herring makes some romanticized Casanova sweet-nothings while Cashion and Welmers jam back and forth on a dynamic, electro beat. Wrapping the record up are two radically different tracks. “Fall From Grace” is the most rock-driven cut on the record, complete with a gut-wrenching Sam Herring scream worthy of a metal record. It’s a breakup song for the madly passionate that might take a listen or two to understand its full weight and placement on Singles, but within a couple rotations, its heavy-handed charm wins you over. Finally, “A Dream of You and Me” ends the record on a high note, putting Cashion’s bass line at the forefront, while Welmers and Herring play with the space in the background. “I asked myself for peace and found it at my feet staring at the sea”, Herring sings. After more than three records worth of outcries and discontent with love, Herring ends this record - the first in a new era for Future Islands - with a newfound understanding of relationship and of himself. “Beauty lies in every soul, if you wait for the money. How long?” It’s just as danceable as the rest of them, but the takeaway as the album’s closer is priceless.
The title of this new, wonderful Future Islands record could be taken a handful of ways. It could be, like the Men’s recent Tomorrow’s Hits, a play on the increasing commercialism of the album and the industry. Or, it could be a testament to the quality of the record, in that every track could (and should) be a single. Or even further, it could be a an archetype for Future Islands then and now. With a reputation for breakup records, Future Islands make music for singles - single people, that is. But with Singles and the band’s musical and thematic progression forward, Herring and his bandmates are learning how to be whole people, just like the rest of us. We can choose to hang on to past loves indefinitely, or we can wash what’s left and move on towards the horizon with the change of the seasons. No matter how you take it or come to it, Singles is ten tracks of pure gold, and it’s the first taste of a promising new chapter for Future Islands that first and foremost sees them saying goodbye to the obscurity of the past.
Singles is out tomorrow on 4AD. Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl. To all those who haven’t been on the Internet in the last month, Future Islands are incredible live, and you definitely don’t want to miss their show in support of Singles at the Crocodile on April 3. Good luck finding tickets, though, because it is SOLD OUT.