I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. I’ll periodically review newer releases or records that I’m really into at the time.
Future Islands is a three-piece hailing from Baltimore (although they met at East Carolina University), and they’ve fallen in with Dan Deacon’s Wham City crew. But unlike the unhinged art pop the scene tends to churn out, Future Islands’ brand of art rock takes on a more serious edge; in fact, despite gleaming melodies and a penchant for major chord resolutions, the subject matter contained herein explores the darkest corners of broken relationships. The balance is extremely subtle and expertly crafted – the main instruments are a drum machine, nimble bass, and keyboards and synthesizers that resemble glowing pink clouds of haze, false sunshine, water droplets, and cavernous choruses – the texture and timbre are sublime. Guitar is scarce, its most insistent use a magical arpeggiated rhythmic picking on “Vireo’s Eye,” almost at the end of the album. They fall squarely in the Joy Division/New Order camp, but stretch beyond the claustrophobia of the former and soar beyond the memorable melodies of the latter. They’ve even dubbed their style “post wave,” an effort to meld the darkness and seriousness of post punk with lighter new wave arrangements. And the singer – oh the singer. Samuel T. Herring has a voice that resembles Tom Waits, and before you start criticizing me of unoriginal journalism for parroting what most other reviews have so, astutely, noticed, I mean that merely as a starting point. In that voice is the gravity of a thousand crushed relationships, the weight and the angst is so palpable that I imagine his words as objects or projectiles, so deeply they penetrate the psyche. Herring’s voice is deeper and not as strained as Waits’, and his range allows him to be naturally theatrical, although he doesn’t exude as much cynicism as Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart. He’s honest and up front, sincere, although that’s not to suggest that Stewart isn’t, it’s just a completely different brand on display.
In Evening Air was released earlier this year on Thrill Jockey, the band’s second album and first for the revered Chicago label. As of right this minute, it’s my favorite record of 2010. It’s a peek into the dark, ugly gutter of disintegrating relationships, the clueless and ignorant partner’s foolish attempts at recognition, and the self-destructive behavior that opens emotional wounds that require years to heal. It’s a diary of the end, a bleak and painful cycle. But it’s so honest and resounding, delivered in such a palatable manner, that it’s impossible not to empathize completely with the band. The album is split right in half for easy consumption as well, four songs on each side split by the minute-long ambient piano title track. And there’s a thread going through each, the mood changing subtly but perceptibly.
The Realization Side
Possibly some of the most difficult songs I’ve heard in a long time reside on side A, where cruelty between people who once loved each other saturates the mood. Secrets are uncovered, lies are brought to the surface. “Walking Through That Door” is filled with regret, with one partner longing for something they can’t have, and the other “[wanting] to be the one to help you find those years that you’ve been talking about.” The song title itself suggests a passage, a transition from one way of life to another. It suggests leaving. But against thick new wave keyboards and thudding bass, the bite is lessened a bit as one can picture the song an indie-rave hit, or even a modern goth club staple. It all goes down, though, in “Long Flight,” as the opening verse suggests: “I got back from a long flight, / you said you’d meet me there, / I’ve been tripping off constellations and stars. / I found you at home, what was our home, / with another man, oh man. / Been keeping you in my heart.” Here Samuel Herring as protagonist finds himself cuckolded after a long absence, and making it worse, he’s been longing for the time he can be with his lover again. He’s devastated. And even though the vice grip is clenching his heart, he makes a pathetically valiant effort to bring it back together: “And so I whispered into your ear, / ‘What are you thinking about?’ / You just looked up at the stars.” And I love the next line, where he gets that she doesn’t want to talk about it, and the reality that it’s all over dawns on him: “And so I whispered into your ear, / ‘Who are you thinking about?’ / It couldn’t be me.” He can’t let it go but he hopes there’s still something in his partner’s heart that will bring her back to him. But there’s nothing. “And I went off and saw things I’ve never seen, / I really wanted you there. / But you ruined what was love.” Again backed by tight, thick new wave, a more perfect juxtaposition is an impossibility.
The L. Frank Baum-referencing title “Tin Man” itself suggests that the narrator doesn’t have a heart, the organ having been metaphorically ripped from his ribcage. Guilt begins to rear its ugly head here, as Herring belts in his best Waits impersonation, “You couldn’t possibly know how much you mean to me. . . . You couldn’t possibly find it in your heart to forgive me.” The keyboard here is more muted, calling into question the singer’s emotional state as he begins to mull over the reasons, either real or imagined, why his relationship crumbled. He’s digging, he’s processing, and he can’t get there, so he wavers between hope and resignation. But there’s no hope, and “An Apology,” the most nakedly emotional performance on the record, finds Herring in the greatest despair. The keyboard is muted further but it twinkles as if in sympathy. The rhythm is down to bass pads, and the vocals sound as if they were recorded with Herring in a big room, backed a bit away from the microphone, to give a cavernous and empty effect as if he’s yelling into the void. The resignation is winning over the hope, as the admission of some unknown wrong is the last effort to save the relationship. There is a poetry to the lyrics that comes only to the most troubled, those throwing their arms up for help but finding only suffocating darkness: “Tethered to finding a rope, / we walk in precarious ways, / and go alone at night, / to Misery’s bed. / In Misery’s bed, we stay. / So far away.” They are now truly parted, and the resignation wins – you can almost picture Herring dropping his arms, lowering his head, and slumping his shoulders after screaming the final “so far aways” after his lost lover, the night not returning his pleas. “And I wasn’t there in the last, / but I was surely there from the first. / Here, in my chest where you burst, / I keep the crush and the weight of the world. / So far away.” Harrowing and beautiful, the pain is absolutely the art. I must admit, “An Apology” brings tears almost every time.
The Resignation Side
Once Future Islands has exhausted (and I mean collapsed-in-a-heap exhausted) the pursuit of truth in broken relationships and come up empty, there is only reflection and introspection left, and a resignation that both parties must move on. But the behavior can be masochistic if you let hope crawl back into it, and Herring does with “Swept Inside,” a great Joy Division homage with bouncing bass and ethereal keyboards, the upbeat track a red herring to the cold war brewing. The poetic longing of good times past and the half-hearted reassurance that “life is ours to find” illustrate the toll of the emotional damage and the painful healing process ahead: “She says nothing seems the same, / and i can’t change a thing. / Her body’s like a wave / breaking to the sea. / She says everything seems strange / locked behind the years / but life is ours to find / in the days, at night.” It’s the weird optimism post-breakup, the attempt to get through it with a stiff upper lip. But when you take that optimism and apply it to the continued civil relationship with an ex, it can become unhealthy, as Samuel Herring on “Inch of Dust” – a true power ballad – pleads, “call me / I’ll be there always.” He’s offering his support in anything, but the ball isn’t in his court with the communication, and it seems a one-way proposal. He hopes there will come a time where he can be needed again, where he can feel useful and loved, but he knows, deep down, that it will never happen.
“Vireo’s Eye” reintroduces the post wave with a manic guitar line strummed quickly against an equally swift bass progression, while keyboards cloud the insistent drum pattern. It’s another kinetic masterpiece – but Herring is still wallowing in self pity: “You were strong, I was a child.” He’s still reminiscing over the qualities of his lost love, blinded by the brokenhearted ache. He turns the blame on himself, much like “An Apology,” and whether it’s right or wrong, it’s the punishment that he feels he needs to bear. “As I Fall” closes the record in the musical spirit of “Tin Man” and “An Apology,” bass drum pads being the only percussion, and a Joy Division bassline anchoring more ethereal keyboard. But at this point, the hope’s gone, it’s all lament: “I can’t touch you anymore, I can’t tell you how I feel, as I fall.” Herring is alone in his pain now, he knows it, and he’s not sure his ex feels the same way. This is the cry of anyone who’s ever loved and lost, anyone who’s ever felt guilt over a breakup, anyone whose relationship has prematurely ended, and anyone who’s been crushed by the fallout. In fact, the whole record is this cry. It’s a stroke of genius, a horrific emotional thrill ride. If I could have turned to this record the last time I was in a relationship that imploded, I don’t know if I’d ever come out of the depression. It’s just that good.
RIYL: New Order, Joy Division, Tom Waits, Sunset Rubdown, Videohippos