It was clear from the get go that Future Island had an unusual resource in lead singer Samuel T. Herring’s remarkable voice. Sounding like he could’ve fronted a southern blues-rock band, or – as he often shown on stage – a growling metal act, it’s fair to say that, in the context of synth-pop, Herring is unique. If you’ve been following the band live, you’ve already seen his theatrical on-stage showmanship, where he croons and moves like his life depended on it. Future Islands first few records gathered lot of praise, as well as a small, but dedicated group of followers, but these didn’t hit quite as hard as their kinetic on-stage enactments. Now, on fourth album Singles, something seems to have changed. They’ve moved from the small but cherished Chicago imprint Thrill Jockey to mammoth indie label 4AD, their first Coachella performance is on the horizon, and on top of that, their striking recent performance on The Late Show with David Letterman has twelve times more views than Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” and four times more than Artic Monkeys “Do I Wanna Know”, which makes it the most viewed musical performance on Letterman this year. “I physically work hard on stage to get mouths to drop, bring people in, and to catch them off guard,” Herring recently told Pitchfork. “We come out and people don’t really know what to expect—and then we launch into this big music”. If you haven’t seen the clip yet, I urge you to do so. It’s impossible not to take Herring’s unabashedly goofy and uninhibited choreography to heart.
While he is entertaining as hell, his animated ardor hasn’t transferred on to any of their previous records. That is, up until now. Already on album opener “Seasonal (Waiting For You) – a strong track of the year contender – it’s cracked wide open; Singles is far and away Future Island strongest set of songs to date. It’s not that the album is musically very different from previous ventures, but all is magnified and bolstered with a strong sense of conviction. And who cares if it’s not flawless when Herring’s Tunde Adebimpe-meets-Tom Waits growls are finally given full disclosure. He knows when to hold back and when to release, and can fit a range of emotions inside his textural, full-throated vocals. His voice is also what makes Future Islands fairly direct 80’s and contemporary synth-pop influences rather subdued. No one sounds like Future Islands, nor could anyone. After almost a decade, they’ve figured things out, and in the process, found the perfect balance between William Cashions (Peter) Hook-laden bass play and Herring’s passionate, melodramatic quirks.
Thematically, Singles is lighter and emotionally less draining than most of their discography. It’s like they’ve finally run out of bleak break-up songs. Filled with newfound energy and endless optimism, this is also the most physical version of Future Islands we’ve heard yet. The first five songs are brimming with massive choruses – one firing bullet after another – swelling the first-half into a fiercely entertaining and characteristic version of power pop. The comparably wandering and more muted back half offers deeply harmonious pop music, with occasional outbreaks of curious revelations, like when near-final tack “Fall From Grace” unleash its screams that is not only the albums highpoint, but one of the most surprising moments in recent pop memory.
Herring admitted the album title is a concerted effort to make this an album of singles; “It’s a confident, arrogant title. Every single song’s a single and can stand along on its own.”, Herring recently said. Which brings me to the biggest revelation of Singles; anybody who’ve seen the band live knows that the truest form of the band exists on-stage, but with this album, they’ve transferred a lot of that energy over, and in the process created the strongest synth-pop record so far this year . The closest contemporary name I can think of his Mas Ysa. He too made a great use of his voice and disparate influences to create unpredictable synth based pop that dares to challenge the boundaries of a genre desperately seeking innovation.