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Future Islands' pop songs match playfulness with poetry

Future Islands make danceable music with literate lyrics. Best watched live, the band has just released their sixth album

Future Islands’ Sam T. Herring performs at the 2015 Hangout Music Festival in Alabama.
Future Islands’ Sam T. Herring performs at the 2015 Hangout Music Festival in Alabama.

Like people of a certain vintage, I still discover new music by listening to it, not by listening and watching it. Streaming sites such as Spotify and iTunes rank way higher on my menu of music purveyors than YouTube, for instance, because I very rarely watch videos of songs. So it’s funny that it took me a couple of videos to get really hooked to the music of Future Islands, a band whose songs so quickly became earworms that it still seems surprising. But then they are one of those bands that can hook you quickly with their performance.

The first video I watched of Future Islands was not a new one. It was from a performance six years ago on the American talk-show host David Letterman’s show. The band was performing Seasons (Waiting On You), a song from their then newest album, Singles, which would go on to become a huge hit and catapult Future Islands to fame. But it was the passion of frontman Samuel T. Herring that made all the difference. Herring is the lyricist and singer of Future Islands and the best way to experience the band is to watch them perform live. The Letterman show, where Herring punctuated his unusual dance moves by beating his chest with his hand, quickly went viral—and remains one of the most watched videos of the band.

It is easy to classify Future Islands as a synth-pop band, an ensemble that sets pop songs to danceable beats, but that would be not be doing them justice. Because it is the lyrics and the manner in which Herring delivers them that sets them apart from the ordinary garden variety synth-pop outfits. Based in Maryland, the band comprises, besides Herring, Gerrit Welmers on keyboards and synth, William Cashion on bass, and Michael Lowry on percussion. What stands out too is the absence of an electric guitar in the ensemble. Instead, it’s the mellow synth tunes and the hook-filled bass lines that provide the backdrop to Herring’s growls, yelps and often gruff vocals.

The lyrics of most of their songs are tinged with melancholia. Theirs are songs about losing love, separation and wistful nostalgia about memories and people left behind. In Seasons, the song Herring sang on Letterman’s show, there is a verse that goes: As it breaks, the summer will wake/ But the winter will wash what is left, of the taste/ As it breaks, the summer will warm/ But the winter will crave what has gone/ Will crave what has all/ Gone away. Not what you would expect in a pop song. But then Future Islands’ lyrics are raw and emotional. And Herring puts everything he has into the way in which he sings them.

He and his band have come out with six full-length records, the latest of which, As Long As You Are, releasedearlier this month. The new album’s songs are refreshing, their lyrics, as usual, are honest, and the themes include nature and its cycle of renewal, trust in relationships, and memories of times gone by. Intimate and soulful, the album’s sometimes melancholic lyrics belie the sense of happiness you feel while listening to it. That’s the thing about Future Islands. Herring can sing sad songs and yet make them danceable and upbeat.

That is why watching Future Islands live—there are many videos available of their gigs—is the real deal. Herring, who is a slightly stocky man, clean-cut and with a receding hairline, bounces, dances and gesticulates passionately while performing and singing about bitter breakups, angst and nostalgia. At gigs, he and the band enjoy a great connection with the audience. At a concert in Baltimore in 2017, the full video of which is online, he announced that he had been drinking the night before because he needed a hangover to be able to sing the songs, thanked the audience for “bringing your f***ing souls here” and then apologized for his habit of cursing a bit. Needless to say, no one minds that at his gigs. The audience roars between songs and everybody is on their feet dancing non-stop.

Future Islands’ albums work on two levels. In a relatively superficial way, it can be the perfect party music, danceable and pleasing, with Herring’s pleasurable baritone, the deep bass lines and the synth. At another level, it is the lyrics. Their stark openness can quickly strike a chord with the listener in a manner that so intimately identifies with one’s own emotions that it can seem uncanny. Herring, who has been a rapper and performance artist, has said he uses the stage as a position of power or a platform to talk about emotions that people can identify with. At shows, his presence is larger than life on stage and there’s never a dull moment as he dances, jumps and gesticulates while singing.

Although routinely classified as a synth-pop band, Future Islands don’t like that tag. Instead, Herring thinks they are a “post-wave” band that combines elements of New Wave’s pop from the 1970s and 1980s with the avant-garde elements of post-punk. For me, the band’s most striking differentiator is the lyrics and the way Herring sings them. And because his vocal style is so unconventional, it often helps to have the words of each song handy as a prompt to follow while their music is playing. For Future Islands combine pop’s playfulness with literate, heartfelt lyrics like few bands can.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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