When the universe earmarked individual participants in alternative music for breakout stardom it likely chose the Followill brothers for their rugged handsomeness, Jack White for his pale otherworldly aura and the Arctic Monkeys for their slick haired charm. Samuel T. Herring, with his receding hairline, disembodied voice and embarrassing dance moves, was not on the agenda. Like a ghost in the machine, he has broken free of the matrix and led his other two Baltimore based bandmates into the ordinary subconscious, slipping into the mainstream through a single televised performance.
While it says more about the decrepit state the music industry is in that it takes a late night chat show appearance to make people realise that you exist, never mind make good music, it would be folly to overlook what David Letterman’s end of show slot has done for Future Islands. It has got people to notice them more than anything that has come before, and while it would be preferable that people discover good music through their own endeavours rather than having it spoon fed to them by the media, it is better than nothing. What’s more, Future Islands now releasing Singles, their fourth album, have come to the point in their career where it is stand up and be counted or be satisfied with making music for the joy of it, never to achieve that added success that comes with being pumped into the bloodstream of the general public. Now the hard work begins: the fight to keep their heads above ground and not get lost in the sewage that runs underneath.
Most bands hit mainstream popularity through something more easily digestible and throwaway – the Kings of Leon blew up with their fourth album, but that was probably the least impressive collection of songs they’d released by that time in their career. However, accessibility does not necessarily imply a drop in quality. On Singles, Future Island’s most accessible but also best record to date, the Baltimore trio have gone for broke and the risk has paid off.
Future Islands have attempted to make a gleaming synth pop record that has mass appeal whilst retaining the qualities that have made them an underground hit for many years already. For me, they’ve managed to be resoundingly successful in this with surprising deft and subtlety through merely tweaking their sound ever so slightly.
Regardless of what the band intended by calling their fourth record Singles, it is difficult to place any interpretation other than the record is a collection of ten singles. Unlike previous albums there is absolutely no filler – every track is a buccaneering pop titan that seems always rising. Rarely does it slow down. Brief snippets of softly caressed waves on the shore or the chirp of seagulls at the beach (tying in with the water imagery that seems prevalent throughout their work in lyrics, sound and atmosphere) are the only respite this time round. This, in itself, is an audibly recognisable contrast from their previous album. Even if the emotions of lead vocalist Herring are still steeped in a longing and sadness, the music is decidedly up tempo and remains so throughout the record. The decision to be musically upbeat is a welcome change from their minimalist norm and has opened up the possibility of greater texture and a careening sonic satisfaction that has been missing before.
Previously, a lot of emphasis has been placed on the voice and words of Herring, but Singles actually allows fellow band members Gerrit Welmers and William Cashion to flex their instrumental muscles. Songs such as ‘Spirit’ and ‘Doves’ recall The Cure at their poppiest, Head on the Door heights. Often, the morbid, melodramatic quasi-poetry of Herring has been too much at the forefront meaning that song structure and general showing off was cast aside as simply backing for his admittedly considerably weighty words. The music is now a more important component that draws the attention of the listener – not just something pleasant in the background. The melodies fight for space with the singing now and actually that conflict is what makes Singles such a success.
To not discuss Herring’s inimitable voice would be an oversight. The sound that emits from his vocal chords is the soul of this band and is what makes people sit up, take notice and know they are listening to a Future Islands song – having a unique voice is always half the battle. It isn’t just the sound of his voice. Herring is the most rounded frontman – the tone of his voice is perfect and heart-piercing, the diction and intonation of his lyrics is unusual, curious and ear-grabbing and his words are full of passion and romance sung aloud, if not on the page. There is experience in his voice. While they hold no discernible similarities, it reminds me of the feeling of The National’s Matt Berninger’s voice – like it has been somewhere and undergone unimaginable heartbreak and tragedy. It can be rousing (‘Seasons’), animalistic in its pain (‘Fall From Grace’) and forlorn (‘Like the Moon’). Most impressive is that Herring and his bandmates manage to balance the contrast between the pain in his words and the joy in their music. This has always been, for me, a watermark of good music – when the voice is so sad but the music is so happy, can the pressure between them hold or does the shield shatter and engulf one? Future Islands achieve and portray the contrast effortlessly and it is the defining factor in what makes Singles a more accessible piece of music.
While it is always tempting to take the now “hipster” approach to popularity when it comes to our musical loves finally achieving wealth and success by disowning all those who finally break from beneath the undergrowth of alternative music, it is surely impossible to listen to as confident a record as this and not feel a pride for how they’ve risen to this surprising level. If anything, it now means that more people can let loose with Herring, wailing out in their romantic agony, strangers united as a collective under this one leader who is as broken on the inside as they are.