Noise An Arts Blog

On "The Far Field," Future Islands endure disappointment and duet with Debbie Harry, but don't let their hearts harden

OK, OK, OK—before we get going, let's do away with the two terrible takes that keep on getting tied to the new Future Islands album, "The Far Field."

The first bad take: Future Islands are a viral band staring down their virality after that 2014 "Late Show With David Letterman" performance of 'Seasons (Waiting On You)' and oh, what will they do and how will they be able navigate it all?

While it sure is weird that a band in the 2010s got pretty big based on a talk show appearance, viewing the group as "viral" makes too big of a deal out of their memefication; in the grand scheme of things it was minor. For lots of people, they are the band with the guy who dances "weird" and they will remain that, but anybody who legit discovered the band via Letterman, bought 2014's "Singles," or caught them live already knows they're not Buzzfeed fodder.

It is nevertheless a little annoying, I imagine, to be made into a big deal for something you've been doing for years—dancing wildly and honestly, singing with painful sincerity — and better yet, for it be kind of meme-fied and in some ways as much mocked (or "appreciated" in that deadening, arch ironic way of the internet), as celebrated. And "The Fair Field's" decided modesty is probably a response to that.

But Future Islands haven't exactly gone away or become encased in internet silliness since 2014, they've used their success in really cool ways: side projects such as Snails, Peals, and Moss of Aura have kept going and vocalist Sam Herring's rap side project, Hemlock Ernst, has tied itself to Baltimore's avant-garde rap underground firmly and helped raise its profile a touch; the band helped set up Windjammer, which essentially transported Wham City to Pier Six Pavillion—success employed in order to craft a singular happening; and just look at the acts opening up for them at their four Ottobar shows this weekend (Nerftoss, 83 Cutlass, Amanda Schmidt, Joy Postell, among others)—they're putting their friends and bands they admire on, as it were.

The second bad take: Future Islands' honesty and optimism just may not work anymore because we're in the President Donald Trump era.

To play along with this is to misrepresent how Future Islands are optimistic—their optimism's striving, tempered, and informed by how bad the world is, and it often seems fueled by an embattled DIY ethos of, "You can't let these evil fuckers win, so you keep going and caring and loving despite it all." And recall the band very beautifully, if less virally, appeared on Letterman a second time on Apr. 29, 2015, just two days after the Baltimore Uprising got violent. They performed the single 'The Chase' and, before it began, Herring declared, "This song is going to go out to the people of Baltimore, let us not discount their voices or all the voices in the cities that we live in and love." We almost had a revolution here in Baltimore, as my colleague Baynard Woods has taken to reminding people, and Future Islands were ostensibly down and told the world as much in their open-hearted way, so the idea that their music isn't informed by turbulent political times or at least aware of them is lazy (also: check out Herring's verse on JPEGMAFIA and Freaky's 'Llama Mind,' where he outlines the racist history of the United States).

As I write this, "The Far Field's" 'Beauty Of The Road' is in my headphones and we are seemingly about to go to war. Future Islands' reassuring music doesn't seem clueless or escapist just heartening and aware.

Same goes for the rest of "The Far Field," which is, intentionally so, just the latest Future Islands album. If this is the moment where the band's supposed to go big or get all ambitious, or anything other than be the band they want to be in the way they want to be, then it might feel minor: An oft-sweet, occasionally dejected record that doesn't match the masterful "In Evening Air," but comfortably hangs out with "On The Water" and "Singles," the other two very good ones.

Blame a hardheaded kind of Baltimore integrity for "The Far Field" not being some sea change, but also maybe consider it a self-preservation technique? Here, they further soften the nervous, easy listening synth-pop they mastered touring their asses off and realized that what they offer in record versus what they offer live should clash rather than match: William Cashion's basslines, as always, are thudding and melodic like Peter Hook of New Order, though on this album it's more like Hookie covering the guitar parts from Ventures songs on the bass, more flexible and alive; Gerritt Welmers' keyboards and electronic programming is busier and processing more; and there are also some strings here and there and a drummer, Mike Lowry, so everything hits a bit harder, which means you feel it more.

'Cave' sounds like a few typical Future Islands instrumentals all playing over top one another with Herring doing his best to catch up, suggesting the threat of being subsumed—a bit of a theme on "The Far Field." The song's sonically in the tradition of '80s stuff like the chintzy samurai sword sounds in Robert Palmer's 'Simply Irresistible,' those frog croaks in the extended version of New Order's 'Perfect Kiss,' and what sound like seagulls squeaking through the beginning of Talk Talk's 'It's My Life.' Future Islands have always been conversing with the '80s, not just cribbing a few sounds or tricks, but matching it, continuing a tradition of new-new romantic music that is catchy, compelling, experimental, and warm. And on 'Shadows,' the band straight up sings along with the '80s, on a balmy duet with Debbie Harry—the only "we're kinda famous now and have access" flex on the record really.

And then there's Herring's voice, of course. Next to, say, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats and Future at his least monstrous, no one does heavy-hearted enthusiasm like Herring, and it feels especially dauntless on "The Far Field." He's more soul than punk here, further highlighting how Herring, from the deep South, has always been a kind of soulman—he's Otis Redding or James Brown-like in how he moves on stage and the way he howls, part of a tradition of rowdy preacher catharsis put into pop music wherein the vocalist makes a mess of himself and gets real so you, dear listener, don't have to do it your own self.

On 'Time On Her Side,' Herring says, "The sea was large today, just as any other day"—a rueful Japanese death poem-like observation that says just because things are impressive every day doesn't make them less important or less worthy of commenting on or appreciating. In general, he's a bit more koan-like here, which makes moments where he gets literal especially devastating. From 'Through The Roses': "I'm no better than you and I'm scared/ Just searching for truth/ It’s not easy, just being human." Then he raises the stakes without the expected Captain Beefheart-ian croak or black metal-like growl but just a pause, and then a confession that he is "scared...that—[he] can't pull through."

'North Star,' tells the story of not being able to get to someone he loves because of a flight delayed by snow, so he drives there instead through the freezing rain. It's an unofficial and slightly happy sequel to "In Evening Air's" 'Long Flight,' an upbeat howl about getting home from tour and catching his partner in bed with someone else—a song that peaked with a terrifying scream of rage and pain.

Heart-on-sleeve Herring and Future Islands build on disappointment—their discography's an accumulation of the group's heartbreaks, frustrations, and insecurities. To read into these songs is to realize that Herring keeps falling in love, which also means eventually out of love; that he has his hopes up means they'll be dashed maybe, and yet he keeps going and remains open and then sings the shit out  of brusque poems about just fucking living life, man. Plenty of others hearts would've hardened over time, or stopped trying so hard to feel, but not Herring, not this band—they keep putting themselves out there.

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