Released 7th April via 4AD
Following a now-legendary Letterman performance of ‘Seasons’, the lead single from their 2014 album Singles, Future Islands became instantly canonised as indie darlings. They deserved it, and it was earned by more than just one performance: Future Islands have been producing some of the best synth-pop around for quite some time. Frontman Samuel T. Herring’s dancing, growling and passionate chest-beating made that performance what it was, but Future Islands have always acted as something of a Trojan Horse.
Their exterior is synth-pop that’s never too far away from A-Ha, New Order, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, yet inside boasts slow-burning and sorrowful musings on life. Meanwhile, Singles is one of the most appropriately titled albums in recently memory. Simply a collection of great stand-alone tracks, over the course of the album you fall in love with not just with Future Islands, or Singles, but with life itself. Singles was joyous, as well as cathartic.
So, with the weight of their most successful and best work weighing firmly on their shoulders, how does their follow-up, The Far Field, fare in comparison? Pretty well, it turns out. During the Singles tour, Future Islands performed their thousandth show, so it’s not surprising that Herring’s steely vocals sound a little strained here. But it’s not just because of strained vocal cords, but because Herring is strained as a person.
Songs such as ‘Through The Roses’ and ‘Time On Her Side’ reflect on broken relationships of distant and recent past, whilst ‘Beauty Of The Road’ reveals the simultaneously damaging and rewarding life of touring and being away from home and from those you love.
The main highlight, however, is the song ‘Shadows’, where the vocals of Herring and the guest vocalist, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, intertwine perfectly. Harry, now a septuagenarian, understandably has a more brittle voice than that of her Blondie heydays, but it works. It totally works.
Giving a performance more like Victoria Legrand from fellow Baltimore-based band Beach House, her fragility mixed together with her sincerity and confidence makes for something to behold. All this entangles and swoons around the harshness and softness of Herring’s voice. The result is perfect, making a song that can stare down any of their previous work and win!
The Far Field is Future Islands’ fifth effort and shows that they don’t feel the need to change the formula, most likely for two reasons. One, because people don’t want a change from them: if Future Islands produced a hip-hop album in line with Herring’s work under the alias Hemlock Ernst, however good it may sound, it’s hard to imagine it would be received well by fans.
Secondly, The Far Field shows that there’s life in Future Islands’ formula yet. Songs such as ‘Ran’, ‘Cave’ and ‘North Star’ provide the fast-paced, soulful, indie-dance anthems that people expect of them. Yet, the main skill of Future Islands is to produce something familiar that never verges into something predictable or old hat. It’s easy to imagine lesser bands being called out on not moving forward or bring something new to audiences. Future Islands are beyond this. They don’t need to fix something that isn’t broken.
However, if there is a problem with The Far Field, it is that the slower tracks feel like slowed down versions of the band’s rapid, high-energy ones. Previous slow songs were much more than this. Take ‘Fall From Grace’ from Singles, where Future Islands mix the growling vocals Herring usually reserves for live shows with heavy, slow bass work to produce the closest approximation we’re likely to ever get to a Future Islands metal song. The result is intense, yet beautiful and emotional.
Yet, when you replace songs such as this for songs which just seem like Future Islands standards played slower, something is clearly lose and deeply confessional lyrics and passionate vocals don’t really make up for this.
It seems, at times, that Future Islands mistake alternation for variation, and those are not the same thing. Although the songs on aren’t bad — in fact they can be pretty great — it sometimes feels frustrating. The words the songs such as ‘Through The Roses’ are some of Herring’s best, but you can’t help but feel that those words deserve music that matches them.
On balance, have Future Islands produced a worthy follow-up to Singles? Sort of. Whilst songs such as Shadows can stare down the band’s best material, The Far Field cannot compare to the consistently high-quality Singles. That doesn’t stop it from putting up a good fight at times, though.