One of my favorite tropes in pop music is the readymade greatest-hits album, the album so packed with perfectly crafted pop nuggets that every one of its tracks seems destined for airplay. There aren’t too many of these albums, but they all feel earthshaking when they come along: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Def Leppard’s Hysteria, Michael Jackson’s Bad, Adele’s 21, the first half of the Killers’ Hot Fuss. The most remarkable thing about Taylor Swift’s run is that every one of her albums could conceivably fit the definition. On a song that only appeared as a bonus track on his last album, Drake said, “My latest shit is more like a greatest-hits, goddam,” and he wasn’t actually telling the truth, though Take Care wasn’t too far off. I don’t for a second believe that Future Islands, an arty Baltimore synthpop trio who were still playing DIY spaces a few months ago, are aiming for that sort of cultural ubiquity on their new album. But in naming that album Singles, the band is sending a message: That these are all fully developed songs, that they are songs that deserve to soundtrack moments in your life, that will sneak up on you when you don’t expect them. They are swinging for the fences with this one. And they are connecting.
It’s a magical thing when a band of underground weirdos can reach some sort of crossover audience just by focusing itself, without compromising what was always so great and singular about its music. This doesn’t happen often. It’s what Animal Collective did on Merriweather Post Pavilion: Crafting their miasmic fantasias into actual songs, cranking the bass, sharpening the clarity, refusing to fear whatever hooks naturally escaped from their throats. Future Islands are four albums deep and one of the most reliable live bands on the indie rock touring circuit, but they aren’t cultural wave-makers the way pre-MPP Animal Collective were, and their triumph exists on a smaller scale. Still, it’s an absolute and unqualified triumph. Future Islands’ surging, swelling, dramatic art-pop always deserved a bigger audience than it had, and the tweaks that the band makes on Singles are subtle and minute, but they add up to make a tremendous difference. On this album, the band pushes the tempo a bit, sharpens the hooks, makes its song-structures just a tiny bit more firm and concrete. Producer Chris Coady, who’s formerly worked magic with fellow Baltimore keyboard dramatists Beach House, layers their sound even as he compresses it, adding elastic snap to the bass and punch to the synthetic drums. And singer Samuel T. Herring finds that, when he colors within the lines, he can really let his voice go.
There’s a case to be made that Herring is, at this exact moment, our single greatest working indie rock frontman. You can see it in his stage demeanor — T-shirt tucked into Dockers, thinning hair swept rakishly to the side, veins pulsing with electricity, like some ’50s-everyman melodramatic hero made flesh before you in the club. It’s there in the vigorous, instinctive dance moves that sent Future Islands’ Letterman performance viral. But it’s especially there in his voice, a poised and erudite and generally batshit instrument that I’m afraid to describe for fear of not doing it justice. But here goes anyway: Herring’s got a fiery operatic tenor, dramatic and pyrotechnic like Antony Hegarty’s, but he wields it with an Otis Redding sort of fiery intensity, wailing and gnashing and building up to a new crescendo with every crashing chorus. Herring is a sincere and straight-faced writer, and while some of his lyrics might read awkward on paper, he sells them with sweaty, sinewy verve. The love song “Sun In The Morning” just knocks me dead: “Suuuun! In the morning! My sun! Every morning!” On “A Song For Our Grandfathers,” he cranks down to a simmer, paying devastating tribute to his family’s elders and still turning “Let’s be braaaave!” into a rousing plea. “Fall From Grace,” the album’s penultimate song, is the real showstopper, especially the moment where, for exactly one bar, Herring snaps suddenly from portentous indie whoop to pure venomous death-metal growl, then snaps right back into his regular flighty delivery. (Herring pulls that Cookie Monster trick more often during the band’s live shows, and it’s so awesome. I have it on good authority that at least one prominent extreme-metal band is campaigning actively for a Herring collab.)
Herring and the rest of the band come from North Carolina, where they started out as a conceptual art thing before moving to Baltimore, the land of the conceptual indie rock art thing. And yet in Baltimore, the band developed a blunt honesty, a heart-on-sleeve emotional directness that might be cloying if they weren’t so damn good at conveying it. The songs on Singles communicate simple ideas: I love my girlfriend, I love my family, I miss the place that raised me (the bucolic-as-fuck “Back In The Tall Grass”). “Seasons (Waiting On You),” the opening track and the most immediate hit, delivers a sentiment that men don’t traditionally express in pop songs: I have changed for you, and you have not changed for me, and we are drifting apart. It’s a song of bittersweet loss, delivered with a searing melody and a muscular and insistent dance-pop backing that’s vaporous and concrete all at once. It’s a powerfully rendered piece of popcraft, and nearly every song on the album is its equal. For the past month and a half, I’ve been driving around with a burned CDR of my digital Singles promo in the car, and it hasn’t left the player because I’m never not in a mood to hear it. It was a perfect winter album, now it’s becoming a perfect spring album, and I haven’t gotten remotely tired of hearing a single track on it yet.
It bears mentioning that this is very much the same Future Islands that’s already made three sorely underrated albums. Every year at SXSW, one group tends to emerge as the one that dominates just about every conversation during the festival, the but-have-you-seen-them-yet? flag-bearer: Savages, Odd Future, Sleigh Bells. This year, it was Future Islands, and there was something weird about that. Future Islands hadn’t played SXSW before this year, but they’ve been touring hard for years, playing every hole-in-the-wall in the country. Anyone who caught them at SXSW and left stunned could’ve seen them, just as life-affirming and fully-formed, years ago. 2011’s On The Water, which may actually be a better album than Singles, could’ve turned them into festival mainstays just as easily, but it didn’t happen for whatever reason. But Singles finds the band sharpened, honed, ready for whatever comes to it. And it’s thrilling to see a band like this do tiny things to streamline its sound, making these little changes without compromising its own personality, and blowing up on the strength of it. Future Islands deserve to blow up on the strength of Singles. And they will.
Singles is out now on 4AD. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Hold Steady’s grand and fiery comeback Teeth Dreams.
• Liars’ dance excursion Mess.
• Thou’s beautiful Southern sludge wallow Heathen.
• Tokyo Police Club’s sharpened and shameless Forcefield.
• Shabazz Palaces side project Chimurenga Renaissance’s debut RiZe vadZimu riZe.
• Johnny Cash’s lost ’80s album Lost Among The Stars.
• The reunited Owls’ emo return Two.
• Fireworks’ raucous pop-punker Oh, Common Life.
• Earl Boykins’s DIY punk debut FRIENDS.
• Hardball-themed no-longer-an-R.E.M.-side-hustle the Baseball Project’s new one 3rd.
• The Bob Dylan In The ’80s: Volume One tribute compilation.
• The all-star tribute-album version of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
• The Range’s Panasonic EP.
• Teen Daze’s Paradiso EP.
• Washer’s Bighead EP.
• The Walking Dead Original Soundtrack, Vol. 2 EP.