Back in 2014, Future Islands captivated audiences on Letterman with their track ‘Seasons (Waiting on You).’ Frontman Samuel T. Herring’s dance moves, gutsy vocals, and metal growls helped launch them overnight. They were compared to the likes of Simple Minds, A-Ha, and New Order. In addition, the trio’s groundbreaking performance broadcast them, as well as their acclaimed LP ‘Singles,’ across the mainstream airwaves and aggregated meme-world.
Now, Future Islands are back with ‘The Far Field,’ a melodramatic effort of Herring’s past heartbreaks in a deluge of synth-pop and redundancy, while not ‘Singles,’ is a meaningful intervention for Herring, and a band still tapping into their unrealized potential. It is an album that sounds confined musically, but lyrically, breaks through with Herring’s raw, emotional admission.
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The somber LP cover alone can be interpreted as a way of foreshadowing what lies ahead. Similar to the tragic scene in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet,’ an Ophelia-like figure appears to have fallen face down, still holding on to a broken branch of flowers. She famously dies ‘of her own distress,’ after grieving for her father’s death. Herring shares a similar distress, reeling from regret, pain, and losses of two failed relationships in ‘The Far Field.’ Keyboardist Gerrit Welmers and bassist William Cashion accompany Herring’s journey.
The dynamic phrasing of opener ‘Aladdin’ channels Herring’s rap moniker, Hemlock Ernest. Riddled with expressive pronunciations and quick-fire syllables, the engaging vocals add fluidity and flair to an otherwise muted piece. Yet, its sadness becomes more apparent towards the chorus. ‘Time on Her Side’ starts off with Welmers‘ melodic arpeggios before going into Cashion’s driving bass lines, that becomes beautifully interwoven with Herring’s inconsolable state. His ex-girlfriend is “free,” but he is still “on her side.” He longs for her, even in his personal captivity. It is a track with a similar tonality of Joy Division’s ‘Disorder,’ with its swelling bass riffs and forlorn lyricism, only to be accompanied by a more contemporary edge with synths.
The next cut ‘Ran’ reprises a familiar tune to ‘Time on Her Side.’ However, adds lo-fi elements, propulsive bass, and more disenchantment from Herring. He sounds like a hopeless romantic telling his lost lover, ‘what’s a song without you? when every song I write is about you?’ Though, even with his powerhouse vocals, the instrumentals still feel stagnant into ‘Beauty on the Road.’ The synths are more intricate, but the overall groove from the beginning tracks dissipates in a repetitive sound. What keeps the momentum is Herring’s earnest regrets, recalling a failed relationship due to touring with Future Islands.
However, the breakout ‘Cave’ embodies the sorrowfulness of the album, while ‘Through the Roses’ is probably Herring at his most honest, vulnerable peak. His voice cracks in his emotional confession ‘I am scared…I can’t pull through,‘ in ‘Roses.’ It is a sudden acknowledgment, that humanizes the animated and larger-than-life performer. ‘North Star’ and Ancient Water’ continue Herring’s traverse towards solace through ‘blizzards’ and ‘freezing rain,’ but has yet to recover a powerful punch from the instrumentalists. They are restraint in experimentation. Until, the strange, dub/reggae-inspired ‘Candles’ attempts to sway the listening experience. Although it’s a unique cut, it interrupts the brevity of the LP.
Finally, ‘Shadows,’ featuring Blondie’s Debbie Harry, stands out for its thriving synths and endearing harmonies. It is similar to the delightful tunes of ‘X-Offender’ and ‘In the Sun’ on ‘Blondie.’ Harry is a sage to Herring’s despair, asking him ‘why don’t you just break free?‘ There is a hopefulness towards the end, even with the sad, finale of ‘Black Rose.’
While Future Islands’ ‘The Far Field’ may not cover much diverse musical ground, Samuel T. Herring’s brutal, trembling honesty breathes life into the tragedy behind the production. The synth-pop outfit reconciles with the past and present. It ponders what maybe be possible in beyond the ‘far field.’ Nevertheless, Future Islands fans will not be disappointed with their latest output.
‘The Far Field’ is out now.