Future Islands became a meme. That’s something that happened. Their ultimate reward for years of making eloquent and elegant synthpop head-ringers, of playing every hole-in-the-wall venue on the indie rock touring circuit, of sounding like no other band on the face of the Earth: They became the band who your cousin sends you a chuckly Facebook message about. It’s a double-edged sword, memedom. On the one hand, Future Islands are now a bigger deal than they’ve ever been. They sell out clubs and place high on festival posters. On the other hand, there is a significant chunk of the world that thinks of them only as the band with the dancing man in it. And when your entire style and viewpoint are built around an almost painstaking sincerity, a radical vulnerability, that has to be, at the very least, weird.
Three years after Singles, and after the Letterman performance that made them internet-famous, Future Islands have returned, and they’ve done so by retreating ever so slightly. This is a band with a very particular sound, one that no other band would try to imitate even if it could. Its roots are in synthpop, but it glows and shimmers in different ways, drawing on the production aesthetic that’s been there in so many releases from 4AD, the band’s current label but not its original one, since the ’80s. And it’s all built around frontman Samuel T. Herring’s spectacular, pyrotechnic, demonstrative voice — a voice that doesn’t take quite as many fiery turns on The Far Field as it did on Singles.
Singles was Herring showing off — leaping, twisting, diving, occasionally bursting into a death-metal throat-grind. He doesn’t do anything like that on The Far Field. He’s not shy or retiring by any means, but he’s less concerned with proving what he can do and more interested in tracing the emotional arc of his songs, which often leads him to some sad and defeated places. The songs are catchy, but the hooks aren’t triumphant fireworks-in-the-sky affairs, as they once were. This time around, the sound is just slightly thicker. The band recorded the album with producer John Congleton, a master of finely orchestrated indie rock. There are strings, though they never hog the spotlight. The band now has a full-time drummer — it’s Mike Lowry, the one who used to play in the adventurous Baltimore jam band Lake Trout and not the one from Bad Boys — so there’s a rhythmic elasticity that wasn’t there before. And the great Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry shows up to lend gravitas to “Shadows,” playing a role that a Baltimore art-music peer like Jenn Wasner or Katrina Ford might’ve played on a previous record. But all these changes don’t change much, and they have the paradoxical effect of making the band’s sound smaller rather than bigger.
Herring hasn’t really said much about it publicly, but The Far Field seems to be, in many respects, an album about heartbreak, and about finding a grown-up and empathetic way to deal with heartbreak. Much of the time, Herring is lyrically futzing around with pastoral imagery — “We walked along the Rockies, stones admired / Calcite greens and feather bones divided” — which might sound goofy or tortured if he didn’t have that inimitable primal voice. But when Herring strips all that away, his words can cut just as deep as his delivery: “Don’t know what to do, I’m scared that I can’t pull through.”
My favorite line on the whole album is the one where, if I’m hearing it right, he looks back fondly on an ex, sad but hoping she knows that he feels good things for her: “I just wonder if I’m on her mind / As she’s on mine, all the time / And I want her to know that I’m on her side / I’m on her side.” That “on her side” thing is a very real thought, so rarely conveyed. There are so many ways to burn bridges, to say that someone has wronged you and set you adrift. It takes a rare lyricist to ruminate with that sort of humane regret, something that should be familiar to anyone who has felt lost love and learned not to be an asshole about it.
This is heavy stuff, and Herring sounds as though he’s thought every word out carefully. But it’s not painful; he’s not dredging these feelings out of himself. There’s an effortlessness to the way his voice catches updrafts in the music and just lifts. If you’ve spent time listening to Future Islands before — and these days, it’s increasingly likely that you have — there’s a deeply satisfying familiarity to the album. They’re not reinventing themselves. They’re tweaking their sound so slightly and subtly that it never loses its warm, welcoming comfort-food appeal.
As ever, Future Islands make great background music — music for driving or cleaning your apartment or cooking food, music for playing softly when you’ve got friends over. It’s got a dramatic luster to it that doesn’t go away when you’re not listening closely, as it does with so much other music. I don’t think The Far Field is the best Future Islands album, necessarily; for me, that’s still 2011’s staggering On The Water. But maybe more than before, there’s an emotionally nourishing core to the album, one that can find you and move you even if you’re not listening that closely. And here’s hoping that the people who see Future Islands on those big stages this year will hear that nourishment, that it will work for them, that Future Islands won’t just be that band that was on Letterman that one time. They were more than that then, and they’re more than that now.
The Far Field is out 4/7 via 4AD.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Probably and hopefully, that new Kendrick.
• Father John Misty’s almost infuriatingly powerful Pure Comedy.
• Arca’s woozy, emotive self-titled album.
• The New Pornographers’ furiously hooky Whiteout Conditions.
• White Reaper’s militantly catchy Camaro-rocker The World’s Best American Band.
• Joey Bada$$’s hard-slapping All-AmeriKKKan Bada$$.
• Guided By Voices’ August By Cake, which happens to be Robert Pollard’s 100th album.
• Diet Cig’s polished-but-energetic Swear I’m Good At This.
• Ecstatic Vision’s psychedelic freakout Raw Rock Fury.
• Converge side project Wear Your Wounds’ intense, atmospheric self-titled album.
• The Obsessed’s doom metal reunion Sacred.
• Aye Nako’s nervy DIY punker Silver Haze.
• Giant Drag member Annie Hardy’s emotionally charged solo LP Rules.
• Bad Breeding’s frothing punker Divide.
• Loose Tooth’s noisy, queasy DIY rocker Big Day.
• Happyness’ wry indie rocker Write In.
• H.Grimace’s melodically off-kilter debut Self Architect.
• Clark’s cerebral electronic album Death Peak.
• Valborg’s ferocious death/doom attack Endstrand.
• Vanbot’s Scandinavian electro-popper Siberia.
• Fujiya & Miyagi’s self-released self-titled album.
• Karen Elson’s rootsy, uncanny Double Roses.
• Michelle Branch’s Patrick Carney-produced Hopeless Romantic.
• The Chainsmokers’ bid for world conquest Memories… Do Not Open.
• The Man In The High Castle companion compilation Resistance Radio.
• Njomza’s Sad For You EP.
• Dali Vision’s Hell On Earth EP.