I almost wasn’t going to write about Future Islands new album Singles, and their first for 4AD, because everybody else was doing it. And everybody else was praising the record. Which is pretty much what I’m going to do, so I’m facing the proposition that this will merely be white noise in a vast field of Singles love. Also, this is the third album of theirs I’m writing about, so I’m potentially dealing with overexposure as well. (You can see my reviews for In Evening Air and On the Water any time you like.) I resolved not to think in terms of review-ready sentences while listening and simply enjoy the record. I succeeded so fully in the latter and failed so greatly in the former that digital pen is to digital paper and I’m having honest-to-goodness articulable feelings about this music. So OMG here’s a review. Like right now, in 3, 2, 1…
You all know Future Islands, because, as I said, everybody’s written about them. I can’t be bothered to get into the background, sound, etc., because it’s out there, you can find it. It took me until track four, “Doves,” until this thought popped into my mind, though – I was pretty much in a pleasure coma over tracks one through three that it took me this long: Sam Herring is Tina Turner. Or at least the Tina Turner of … shoot, I’m stuck. Indie rock? Naw, that doesn’t sound right. Baltimore? Too geographically focused. Maybe he’s just a new Tina Turner, or a manifestation of the famous diva. Herring should probably be a famous diva. Complete with periodic black metal death shrieks and growls. (Seriously, he does that, and well!) But with “Doves” the flash of recognition was almost instant; perhaps it was the overall composition of the song, so steeped in a mid-1980s music video Top 40 vibe, and equally as catchy, that did it. Herring’s voice, always husky, veered in delicious pop star directions, and not the ones you’d expect, like maybe 1980s David Bowie or something. No, 1980s Tina Turner it is.
But that’s all basically an aside, a funny thing that popped in my head and informed the rest of my listening to a degree that enhanced the experience. Because what’s Top 40 if not an amalgamation of what the masses like, what the masses approve of? However you truly view Top 40 construction (and I view it as a monstrous pile of seething garbage for the most part), it’s hard to deny that the 1980s was a perfect decade for heaping accolades upon artists in that fashion. I think that Future Islands is, really, three decades late, but they’re so good that they’re also perfectly on time. They transcend the pop culture landscape, just like the best artists always do. Like David Bowie and Tina Turner have done.
Singles really is what it says it is, an amazing collection of songs that could slot easily into any pop culture situation and ingratiate itself to our collective consciousness. It’s an album chock full of true, real, actual singles. Hits, even. And maybe that’s why it struck me as much as it did – although Future Islands has long infused infectious energy into their songs and performances, their last album, 2011’s On the Water, was a bit of a downer, an emotional slog, a drag, even. I only mean this in a comparative sense, because In Evening Air was as energetically fulfilling as they come – see, for example, my split thoughts about On the Water when I initially reviewed it, but also its inclusion on my 2011 year-end list at number 9. It just took me a while. (And oh, the title track is wonderful.)
Now, though, Singles is a bombastic delight from moment one, the true first single and opening track “Seasons (Waiting on You).” It’s hard to even describe how beautiful a pop moment this is, a rarified combination of all of Future Islands strengths – catchy synth pop, Herring’s soaring and uninhibited voice, a deep emotional resonance betraying words that wouldn’t necessarily warrant it in lesser hands (a song for the people!). It’s been immortalized already in the band’s amazing performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, and I’ve embedded it here, because I couldn’t not embed it here. It’s a brilliant performance, and Dave is wildly enthused at the end. How often is he wildly enthused?
Maybe what I’m getting from Singles that might have been missing from On the Water (and even In Evening Air) (and I say “might” and “maybe” because I’m speculating and reading myself into the music) is a sense of emotional bravery, the idea that bad things will happen in love and in life and that you can’t mope about it and let it bring you down. Not groundbreaking stuff, surely, but when the concepts are delivered as thoroughly enjoyably as Future Islands delivers them, it makes all the difference. Take “Spirit,” for example – the hook, the one that’s repeated at the end of the song, goes, “Spirit guides when darkness comes to challenge you,” the “challenge you” part drawn out ever-so-satisfyingly by Herring, as if he’s ready to meet any challenge by any darkness with vigor. “Sun in the Morning” features the couplet “I hate to watch you go / I love to watch you go,” but is reinforced by the soaring chorus “Sun in the morning, my sun every morning…” – love longed for, attained, lost, regained, all these things are treated majestically and powerfully. Weird, then, that such simple and universal sentiments are so effectively rendered.
The more downtempo tunes are just as amazing – “Back in the Tall Grass” is basically Future Islands’ “With or Without You,” and “Fall from Grace,” perhaps this record’s “On the Water,” features the aforementioned “metal Herring.” They add acoustic guitar to “Light House” that sounds as at home within their sound as the synthesizers, but of course it stands out because they don’t use it otherwise. And “A Dream of You and Me” ends the album on perhaps the best note a band can – it leaves the listener questioning why it wasn’t track and single number one, it’s that good. So while On the Water should be characterized as a successful sidestep that takes some time to come around to rather than as a misstep, Singles is a fantastic return to form from one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining bands around. Tina Turner, David Bowie, and their hometown of Baltimore should all be proud.
RIYL: David Bowie, Tina Turner, Human League, Duran Duran, Dan Deacon