Future Islands ‘Singles’ – Review

15 Apr

Future Islands have been making albums for half a decade, to some acclaim, but few would have predicted the hype surrounding ‘Singles.’ A few things have contributed to the high expectations; they signed to legendary indie label 4AD, hired a full-time drummer, and had the album produced by the very professional and respected Chris Coady. And of course, they made a now infamous appearance of David Letterman’s show, which ranks as one of the most arresting Late Night performances in as long as I can remember.

But as Youtube will attest to, Future Islands have been putting on these kind of performances for many years; in actual fact, despite the hype, not a lot has changed on ‘Singles’. In fact, musically, nothing has changed. Sure the record is sleeker and more streamlined, but aesthetically it’s a virtually identical album to the two that preceded it. Thrillingly, the band go straight for the jugular where once they may have dordled. ‘Sun In the Morning’ and ‘Fall From Grace’ have the type of meandering melodies that could encourage all kinds of unsavoury musical indulgences; instead the rhythm section provide ambitious urgency, whilst the icy bed of synths lend sparkle and glitter.

Future Islands don’t shy away from big choruses – the first half in particular is full of them – and they don’t shy away from corny, sentimental lyrics either; things like ‘my sun in the morning, my moon in the evening.’ if you’re looking for lyrical depth and sophistication, or even something on the level of their previous work, you’re going to come away feeling short changed. On the better songs you forgive the cliches (on the bright and hooky ‘Like the Moon’ for example, where his lover’s eyes are…uhhh…like the moon) but where the music is less interesting, the lyrics become more obviously banal. The imagery, childlike in its composition, is endearing on one hand but reaps limited rewards; you aren’t given any insights in to love or heartbreak than you wouldn’t get if you asked any sixth form English Lit student. If that sounds harsh I don’t mean it to; Herring is a sincere lyricist and what he lacks in originality he makes up for in conviction. His singing also does a lot of heavy lifting. His voice is deep and rich, it moves in weird directions, sometimes howling, sometimes whispering, sometimes, quite literally, growling. You’re unlikely to find a more theatrical frontman if you spent the next decade  looking but remarkably you would never doubt that Herring means every single word he says. It’s a fine line that he treads, between sincerity and performance, especially considering he is the frontman of a mid-level indie band, and the fact that he pulls it off is an achievment.

Opening track and lead single ‘Seasons’ is easily the best thing Future Islands have ever put their name to. Placing it at the start of the album is a brave statement of intent, but it also means that the record peaks within three minutes. Nothing else on ‘Singles’ is what you’d call an A list pop song. Despite their best intentions, and despite the title, none of these songs are really ‘single’ material. On previous albums this wasn’t really an issue because it wasn’t their aim to get promoted to the premier league of indie bands, therefore any success in that area felt like an added bonus. To use a silly analogy, they were geeks at school who from a certain angle gave the impression that if they dressed up a bit might actually be kind of handsome. Now they’ve dressed up sharp, cut their hair and put on aftershave and the result is a bit…meh. There is too much darkness and despair in these songs anyway and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Future Islands are never going to be mainstream – not because they can’t write hooks but because it’s just not in their personality.

Ultimately we shouldn’t be surprised that despite all the upgrades Future Islands remain essentially unchanged – they are one of those bands that settled on a distinctive identity early on and they’ve expressed no desire to change. They say as much in their interviews and on the album’s opening track: ‘People change but certain people never do.’ They are on to a winning thing, but I don’t think ‘Singles’ will be their greatest legacy. Without wishing to state the obvious, any Future Islands album is a means to an end – the end being their live show. That’s where Future Islands go from being a good band to a great one. ‘Singles’ doesn’t bridge the gap between ‘good’ and ‘great’ as much as I hoped it would but it lends a couple of keepers to the live show – a live show that will be their greatest legacy.


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