Title image: “People Who Aren’t There Anymore” album cover.
Future Islands delivered an album of shimmering sad synth-pop that showcases a band delivering some of their best material over 15 years after their debut.
Future Islands is a band that’s hard not to root for. Hailing from Baltimore, they are one of those bands that spent several years relentlessly touring and refining their sound, earning the devotion of a small fan base before seizing their moment and exploding. In the case of Future Islands, that moment would come by way of a performance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Playing what was at the time their latest single “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, lead singer-songwriter Sam Herring put on a vocal tour de force, shifting between his preferred higher register, shrieks and even a nightmarish guttural howl near the end. He combined this with his perplexing stage movements, sweeping around and beating his chest like he was daring even a single member of the audience to look away. Letterman could not contain himself, almost leaping on stage to shake Herring’s hand exclaiming “How about that! I’ll take all of that you got!” to the band.
“Seasons (Waiting on You)” is a fantastic song that provides a great reference point to what Future Islands does best: Herring singing the living daylights out of his somber yet optimistic poetry while the rest of the band (William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers and Mike Lowry) bring their unique flavor of synth-pop/synth-rock. Unfortunately, “Seasons” may have been too good because nothing they released afterward demonstrated the brilliant alchemy they had pulled off in making a song this catchy while embracing Herring’s romanticism and crushing sense of longing. It seemed like lightning in a bottle. What point was there in hoping for lightning to strike a second time?
Cue a tragic breakup between Herring and his girlfriend of three years, a relationship that was strained to breaking point by the difficulties of being long-distance (Range Magazine). According to The Washington Post, many of the songs on People Who Aren’t There Anymore are about three years old, which is about how long it has been since Herring’s relationship ended, written well before Herring had come to grips with the inevitability of the split. Opener and lead single “King of Sweden” certainly begins the album on an optimistic note, with Herring defiantly belting out “You are all I need/Nothing said could change a thing” on the anthemic chorus, drowning out the traveling fatigue and gloominess that permeates the verses.
The cracks in his optimistic facade begin to appear on the following track “The Tower”, a lyrical triumph for Herring. Central to the song is the image of a lighthouse illuminating what is hidden in the darkness, a theme that the music video reinforces very overtly. On the backdrop of a chilly synth melody, his quiet desperation and sorrow seep into the oblique verses, invoking bizarre yet intensely emotive scenes such as, “When a boy who played with razors/Met a girl who opened cages/All the birds flew through the graveyard/And their laughter was contagious.”
The rest of the album sees Herring at various stages of grief and resignation. “The Thief,” a fantastic early-80s synthpop pastiche, ratchets up the anxiety as the narrator reflects on the loss of his emotional anchor after years of slowly lowering his defenses. It also features one of the most danceable choruses of Future Islands’ career. Later songs like “Peach” and “The Garden Wheel” gradually shift the focus from loss to acknowledging the defiant beauty of life despite hardships, providing satisfying and hard-earned catharsis.
However, the true high watermark of the album is “Give Me The Ghost Back”: the nervous, frenetic, dark night-of-the-soul moment of the album. Opening with the same eerie synths from the previous couple of tracks, anxiety quickly shifts into panic as a faster, icier synth threatens to drown out Herring’s desperate energy. Wailing electric guitars and a thumping bassline give the track a feeling akin to being blinded by a strobe light in pitch-black wilderness as the lyrics furiously grapple with overwhelming dread. “TERROR!/Is a long, sharp knife/Regret and fear have an appetite, appetite/So say goodbye to that old, white knight/No fairytale ending for the night/Just death and life.”
Future Islands stepped out of their comfort zone by holding onto these songs as long as they did. Known for their rigorous touring and fast-paced schedule, they were forced to slow down and take their time, polishing People Who Aren’t There Anymore until it gleamed. That they are still capable of releasing a good album is impressive in its own right, but a band releasing their best album 20 years into their career is a rare occurrence indeed. Future Islands, take a bow.