That voice. It’s impossible to hear Future Islands without being struck by the peculiarity of Samuel Herring’s affected RP growl. The band is blessed with one of the most emotive frontmen in music, and a recent performance on David Letterman propelled them to internet fame, thanks – undeniably – to Herring’s vocal and physical cavorting.
The confusingly titled Singles is Future Islands’ fourth album since their debut six years ago, and they could hardly be accused of making any radical changes in that time. Their fans, a loyal and fervent group, are unlikely to be disappointed by this. Their sound has been – to use the obvious phrase – refined, although to say they have gained confidence would be implicitly to underplay the fervour and vitality of their early output. But they have now successfully coupled their unrivalled intensity with an ear for pop, though continuing rock traditions whilst sounding like nothing else available.
Even without Herring’s distinctive voice, Singles would be easy to recognise as a Future Islands record. This is largely thanks to William Cashion’s incessant bass guitar, elevated high in the mix, and taking more than a little inspiration from Peter Hook. The production can feel a little claustrophobic, which is more of a problem now that Future Islands seem to be aiming for radio-friendly pop.
Their last two albums were filled with songs that more than compensated for their undeniably simple arrangements with emotional weight and strong song writing. However, now that the band’s sound has somewhat expanded, its limitations are more apparent. The instrumentation is decidedly simple, but it can sound a little flat, with the drum machines pushed to the back of the mix and often unchanging for the duration of a song. The ‘80s synths are certainly not employed out of any cynical bid to be “on trend” but they have a tendency to sound almost cheap. There are crashes of colour dotted throughout the record, but it can make listening to the album in one sitting a little wearying. Clearly the focus is on the vocals, but the music can verge on the insipid.
That voice, though. Half-’50s rockabilly, half-death metal growl, Sam Herring’s delivery is either captivating or ridiculous, depending on your persuasion. At once a pinnacle and parody of a frontman, he seems entirely devoid of irony, snarling lyrics that, trusted to other vocal chords, would come across as painfully earnest. The emotion comes from his delivery, and it can feel like Herring, whilst willing to bare his soul in a performance, is almost too macho to express himself in original expressions. That isn’t entirely fair: partly because Singles has plenty of interesting lyrics, partly because one gets the impression machismo is another instrument being employed rather than a character flaw.
“People change, even though some people never do,” Herring croons on ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’. The album paints a portrait of strength through heartbreak that manages to be suitably vague whilst feeling shockingly personal. If you can deal with the melodrama, then there are some truly affecting moments.
Platitudes can become heartfelt expressions of emotion in Herring’s hands, but Future Islands is a conceit that the listener has to buy into. And that’s ultimately the problem with Singles: the passion and atmosphere of the band’s live show can’t be captured in the studio, and so there are points that simply don’t have the emotional impact that’s clearly intended. If Singles is your first foray into the band, then you’re in for a treat – but to gain some insight into the full Future Islands experience, it’s worth seeking out live footage. A 2010 gig at Amoeba Records in Hollywood is available in full on YouTube, which Herring begins by beating out the rhythm of the first track with his open palm on his own face, and only heightens the drama from there. He moves between grinning like Jack Nicholson’s Joker and openly weeping, all the while maintaining fierce eye contact with anyone who dares stare back. Singles doesn’t fully capture what Future Islands do best, but they are a rare band at the height of their conviction, making music that makes you want to dance and fuck and cry, often all at the same time.