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A ‘breakup album’ from synth-pop’s unlikely gods

A ‘breakup’ genre wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. There are a host of great albums that can be classified in such a genre made up of ones that are cathartic, curative or empowering

The American rock band Future Islands in concert at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston Massachusetts, featuring singer Samuel Herring. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The American rock band Future Islands in concert at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston Massachusetts, featuring singer Samuel Herring. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The phenomenon of musicians recording albums that are inspired by or deal with the theme of breaking up a romantic relationship is so common that there should be a separate genre for it. Considering that the different genres in contemporary and popular music have been bleeding across each other’s barriers and the genres themselves are mutating in endless permutations and combinations, it is increasingly becoming meaningless to pigeonhole albums into rigidly defined categories. So, perhaps a “breakup” genre wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

After all, there are a host of great albums that can be classified in such a genre, made up of ones that are cathartic, curative, or empowering, both for the musicians and the listeners. A few standout breakup albums in past decades include, Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, released in 1975, following his separation from wife Sara; or Here, My Dear by Marvin Gaye, which was created in 1978 as part of his divorce settlement with his first wife, who got half of the royalties from it. But it was also a deeply personal and confessional album (it had a song titled, When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You); or Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, which came in 2006 after a turbulent relationship ended.

There are, of course, many, many breakup albums—too many to list here—but the latest such is one by Future Islands, titled People Who Aren't Here Anymore, which came out on 26 January. The Baltimore, Maryland-based band is fronted by singer Samuel T. Herring and the album depicts the collapse of his relationship with Swedish actress Julia Ragnarsson.

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Future Islands, often classified as a synth-pop band, was formed in 2006 but it wasn’t till 2014 that it went mainstream and became popular. Their rise to fame was sudden, spurred by a stunning performance by Herring on David Letterman’s Late Show. The video of them performing the song, Seasons (Waiting On You), went viral with Herring captivating the audience with his expressive vocals, passionate dance moves and animated facial expressions. Seasons was from their then new record, Singles, which became the breakthrough album for the band.

Herring’s vocals alternate between staid crooning and sudden bursts of heavy metal-like growling, a high-energy style that has come to be a hallmark of how Future Islands sound. Also, Herring, who will turn 40 this year, with his clean cut man-next-door looks strikes a contrast with the sort of performances his band has become known for. It’s like a rock dad blowing away the audience at a huge arena; a surprise package of appealing incongruity.

Perhaps that is the appeal of Future Islands. They eschew guitar rock, opting instead for pulsating synth-heavy, dance-friendly tunes but ones that are imbued with emotional, deeply passionate lyrics.

The new album, People Who Aren't Here Anymore, is a deeply personal and introspective work that delves into the depths of loss, memory, and the enduring power of human connection, all while maintaining the band's signature blend of infectious energy and raw emotion. Herring's vocals are at their most vulnerable and captivating, as he lays bare his soul on tracks like King of Sweden and Deep in the Night. His impassioned delivery resonates with an authenticity that cuts through the listeners’ defences, and draws them into the heart of the album's emotional narrative.

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There are some departures musically on the album. The instrumentals are less dominant than on previous albums and yet they do not seem less powerful. The synth-driven rhythms and driving bass lines complement Herring’s idiosyncratic vocal alternations and texture to the soundscape. The title of the album is an indication that it is indeed a breakup album, and the songs take the listener to a realm of absence, sadness, and remembrance.

King of Sweden, with its urgent synths and Herring's desperate plea, captures the longing for a past that can never be recaptured. The title track, a haunting ballad, evokes the lingering presence of loved ones, their memories shimmering like ghosts in the corners of our minds. Deep in the Night and The Thief go into the complexities of love and loss.

But Future Islands’ music, and lyrics, have always been rooted in hope and resilience of spirit. So on tracks like Give Me the Ghost Back, The Fight, and Peach, there is a sense of determination to find joy and meaning even in the face of darkness and gloom.

Yet, there is a sense of deja vu that listeners familiar with the band’s oeuvre could feel. Herring’s vocal style is distinctive as always but on the new album it runs the risk of becoming over-familiar and predictable. The diminished musical flourishes could also make it seem a bit watered down—not perhaps a great attribute for making an album memorable.

Still, Future Islands are a band that enjoys a cult following and one that is growing. Such bands are lucky: they enjoy a more durable sort of devotion of their fans. Seven records in, the tribe of Future Islands’ core fans keeps growing, making them contemporary music’s gods of synth-pop.



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