Album Review – Future Islands’ “Singles”

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For a while, it appeared that the recent resurgence of ’80s-inspired synth-pop had fallen short, as if just having missed the dramatic mark that once tickled the edge of Broadway and blurred gender lines.

For those who grew up in the decade of neon-layered legwarmers, “Labyrinth” and Madonna’s negligées, this observation rang true — that is until Future Islands released its fourth album, “Singles,” in March. Throughout the 10-track album, Future Islands successfully delivers that theatrical element that had been missing this whole time.

While the band’s image does not necessarily match that of the ’80s, the attitude, sound and energy certainly does. With grandiose lyrical moves atop tight new wave beats, Future Islands proves to be a kinetic machine with enough stored energy to explode on the scene and cause havoc overnight—and that is exactly what the band did.

This explosion came in the form of a debut performance on “Late Night with David Letterman,” during which frontman Samuel T. Herring oscillated between deep squat air-humps and what appeared to be a gorilla mating dance that rivaled the moves of a young McDreamy in the 80s classic, “Can’t Buy Me Love.” After that performance, the world knew about Future Islands, and there was no turning back.

This now Baltimore-based trio got its humble start while studying art at East Carolina University, and quickly built a loyal following through relentless touring and one-of-a-kind live performances. Herring, along with William Cashion (guitar, bass) and Gerrit Welmers (keys, programming) have always approached their art with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Their hope was that listeners would decide to stick around and be moved to join the crazy carnival ride they created.

If not familiar with Future Islands’ sound, “Singles” may initially translate as a bit off-the-wall, but do not despair. After a few listens, the band’s charm and character start to sink in and penetrate the soul. Pair this with a few YouTube searches and it will all begin to make sense.

The album opener, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” is a modern day “Breakfast Club” theme—a beautiful anthem for lost misfits on the quest for love. “Spirit” follows with bouncy keys and punchy drums that lead into Herring’s Bowie-esque dramaturgical vocals.

Throughout “Singles,” the listener is presented with tracks that strike a balance between light and dark, hope and despair, old and new. Dripping with synth-crescendos and heavenly vocals, “Sun In The Morning” perfectly depicts the emotional tug of war that accompanies a lover’s early departure, while “Like The Moon” takes listeners on a more subdued dreamlike journey into a midnight fantasy.

Musically, “Doves” feels upbeat and happy, but with lyrics like, “Baby don’t hurt no more,” listeners are forced to search for deeper meaning despite the springy dance beats. The unassuming bass line and drum beat of “Back In The Tall Grass” beg for a simpler time — a time of childhood wonderment and play. As the song outros with echoing swamp sounds, “A Song For Our Grandfathers” fades in with a menagerie of audio as Herring pontificates about the changes upon him and taps into the wisdom of ancestors passed.

The melancholy rock ballad “Fall From Grace” leads in with cavernous xylophone tones, high-hat taps and bass drops before Herring emerges with deep, throaty vocals interrupted by guttural primal screams. Here, Herring’s vocal and lyrical range shines bright despite the darkness that blankets the track.

The album’s closer, “A Dream Of You And Me,” is an uplifting message-in-a-bottle delivered on a wave of hope and washed over with beautiful seashore imagery. Herring sings out the song with the lyrics, “I asked myself for peace and found a piece of me, staring at the sea,” as if sharing his daily mantra and life philosophy with listeners — a perfect way to end the album.

Overall, “Singles” offers a glimpse into the past while carving out its own place in time. This quality will appeal to a wide audience and continue to catapult the band to new heights. With Herring’s vocal front and center, undulating effortlessly between gravel and grace, the album is a refreshing departure from the norm. In the end, “Singles” soars with more performance arts flair than auto-tuned studio gloss, giving listeners a raw, emotional sill on which to perch and ponder life.

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