Naming your album Singles is a bold move, Future Islands. Not only is it confusing, but it’s slightly haughty. Is this supposed to be an album of previously released singles? Is every song supposed to pack the power of a “single”? Whatever you may think of the title’s connotations, the decision likely came from an influx of confidence, a factor which in turn makes this undeniably the Baltimore outfit’s strongest record to date.
At album No. 4, Singles introduces a new performance and production finesse, with the group’s three members admirably trying new things. The pinnacle of Future Islands’ grand improvement, though, is the construction of the songs themselves. These are without a doubt Future Islands tracks, but the familiarity only strengthens the love for the improvements that the group have made in transitioning from their experimental beginnings to this newfound musical control.
Wave Like Home, the group’s first release in 2008, was a reckless introduction, full of scattered electronic intensity and a wide range of vocal outburst. This tumultuous starting point, however, was essential to Gerrit Welmers, William Cashion, and Samuel T. Herring’s growth as a unit. A pair of breakout albums, 2010’s In Evening Air and 2011’s On the Water, tightened things up lyrically and in production choices and would function well together as a double LP. The first is packed with fast-paced trailblazers and the second with more vocal-driven, contemplative tracks.
Three years later, Singles arrives as an assembly of the various artistic intentions heard in their earlier work: from quiet, emotional moments to freakishly upbeat aggro-synthpop. “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, “Spirit”, “Sun in the Morning”, and “A Dream of You and Me” are all reminiscent of quick-tempo In Evening Air standout “Long Flight”, whereas “A Song for Our Grandfathers” and “Fall from Grace” reflect ambient elements of On the Water highlight “Give Us the Wind”. The latter two, however, capture Herring growling and snarling at a volume that’s both carnal and alien to Future Islands’ back catalogue. It’s as if he’s clawing at the walls to discover something new.
Seemingly enough, the album’s oceanic artwork suggests such an intentional quest for change. Up until now, each album of theirs had been covered in abstract paintings, which contrasts with this album’s cut-and-paste, lasso-tool photographic reconstruction. It’s an oddball portrait of a legless, headless woman floating mysteriously above the sea, perhaps a nod on the album’s concepts of love and its lyrical collage of the specific/personal and the abstract/universal.
Which brings us to opening track, “Seasons (Waiting on You)”. It’s an earnest amalgamation of everything Future Islands represents: Herring’s smooth, raspy vocals, the band’s bouncing industrial new wave, and their utmost confidence. As he exhibited during the band’s recent Letterman performance, confidence is something Herring has in large supply. He moves with an air of theatricality and finesse, humbling himself by bending his knees to lower his physical height for the song’s pivotal moments. This on-stage vulnerability is how he emotionally connects with his listeners, and the end result is both attractive and inspiring.
“I think the truest form of the band is when we’re on the stage,” Herring recently noted. He couldn’t be more on point: The success of Future Islands, up until now, has been based in their empowering performances and the devotion to their fans. Three years after their back-to-back records, time has served Future Islands well, especially given their expansive growth and their ability to forge their strongest qualities to precision. No album will ever supplant their trademark live show, but at the very least, the confidence they’re putting to tape sure makes Singles‘ audacious title acceptable.
Essential Tracks: “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, “Sun in the Morning”, and “Fall from Grace”