When you get a chance, listen to the last minute or so of “Long Flight” off of Future Islands 2010 debut album, In Evening Air. It is an unfathomable flurry of energy and emotion. Frontman Samuel T. Herring puts everything into that last minute and it’s ‒ dare I say ‒ about as good as music gets. Whether you’re a black metal fan or not, Herring’s gritty vocal performance is something to admire and love and replay over and over and over. Their next album, 2011’s On the Water has similar moments, especially on the opening track, “On the Water,” and the lovely, fully-felt “Balance.”
Fast-forward three years to the set of the Late Show with David Letterman. See Herring bob back and forth, throw his voice around, and put on a performance that’s equal parts Marlon Brando, Ian Curtis, and ‒ I don’t know ‒ Satan? It’s compelling and confusing and genius and more or less forces you to seek out all of their live performances.
What makes Future Islands so lovable and admirable is their ability to have these mind-blowing moments on just about every album. But the problem is just that: they’re moments. While the furious, bizarre, and wonderful moments will garner attention for the band, such moments really don’t represent Future Islands’ overall vision and style. In reality, this is an exceedingly gentle and sensitive band that specializes in carefully constructed pop songs. They’re lovely songs, but reconciling the two sides of the Future Islands coin — the fireworks of “Flight Tonight” or something like “A Song For Our Grandfathers” — is what tends to leave me slightly underwhelmed by their albums as a whole.
Singles, their newest and best album, gets closest to melding Herring’s outsized personality as a vocalist with the distinct brand of pop music they want to make. It possesses some of their best instrumentation to date, capped off by the wonderful opener, “Seasons (Waiting On You).” It’s pretty amazing how many bona fide ballads they place on here and a cynic might think that’s a waste of Herring’s boundless energy as a vocalist. With that said, he certainly has his moments. “Fall From Grace” is dripping with drama and pathos and stands out as the type of song that only Future Islands can pull off. Such a trademark sound is a pretty impressive calling card for a band.
The band’s ability to hold back and not send every song into what I’ll call #HerringMania is commendable. They show otherworldly restraint on “Back In The Tall Grass,” a song that feels like it’s just waiting to go wild but never really does. “Light House” cracks open emotionally a bit more, but still lingers in a fairly even-keeled register. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the songs I’m most drawn to again and again ‒ “Seasons (Waiting On You)” and “Fall From Grace” ‒ are also the most energetic and powerful. For an album of supposed “singles,” most of these songs are growers. Which is fine, but Future Islands aren’t Beach House, as much as they appear drawn to dream pop ballads. They do make beautiful music and Singles is pretty much a triumph. But I just wish they embraced their unique brand of crazy a bit more often.