Future Islands have been poised at the edge of something big for a while now. The Baltimore-based trio made serious waves with 2010’s In Evening Air, a breakthrough album that brought a wide audience to the band’s jittery, anthemic take on stripped-down electro-rock. That album largely found its power in vocalist Sam Herring’s unreal range, with his ability to move from a low, Waits-ian growl to a surprisingly pretty tenor in the span of a single breath; in his howling, Herring brought an unabashed earnestness to barnburners like “Long Flight” and “Inch of Dust”. The other members of Future Islands, bassist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers, provided rich soundscapes — all bouncing New Order-style riffs, rushing synths, and steady 4/4 backbeats — for Herring to explore, but it was easy to lose sight of their contributions in light of Herring’s captivating presence.
Now, on the band’s new record, On the Water, Cashion and Welmers take center stage. The lushness of the music here is made even more apparent throughout by Herring’s relatively restrained performance. In On the Water, Future Islands have scaled back the bombast to create a seriously melancholy — and quietly brilliant — album. Fans looking to scream their throats raw with Herring in the way of older tracks like “An Apology” or “Beach Foam” will come away with hardly a touch of hoarseness. Rather, Herring explores the exquisite textures of his voice in the opposite direction: he spends more time actually singing on On the Water than anywhere else in Future Islands’ discography. And while it’s difficult not to miss his esophagus-scalding outbursts, he does just as well with a more straightforward style — check the early shift into high register on the soaring “Give Us the Wind” or the velvety crooning on the titular opening track.
Cashion and Welmers have made their own subtle stylistic tweaks as well, and toward a similar restraint. Cashion has always been the band’s secret weapon, playing with a Peter Hook-esque gift for wringing melodies out of a bass with a directness usually reserved for an electric guitar. Welmers would do his part by layering riff after riff on his synth array, until Future Islands’ songs were packed with different hummable hooks. Now, Cashion often turns the treble knob down, choosing instead to lay steady, plugging rhythms for the foundations of “On the Water”, “The Great Fire”, and “Close to None”. Similarly, Welmers holds back, opting for fewer Nintendo-bright bleeps and more washes of atmospheric swells. The cumulative effect moves Future Islands away from the danceable pop of New Order toward the sunshine sadness of the Cure or the stately grandeur of the Smiths at their least arch. In other words, this is still a band allied with the ’80s, but one that never simply reheats old sounds. On the Water sounds as fresh and exciting as anything you’re likely to hear all year.
Yes, there are moments of the familiar Future Islands rush. Early single “Before the Bridge” sees Cashion working an indelible high-necked hook over a floor-ready beat, while Herring coos a perfect couplet: “Do you believe in love? / Hold your tongue.” “Balance” finds its graceful sweep from Welmers, whose synths mix siren yelps and clinking keys to create a gorgeous backdrop for Herring’s simple, hopeful message. That hook, “You can change your life / It just takes time,” sounds convincing when propelled forward by the band’s steady confidence.
Nevertheless, these more immediate moments are the outliers here. The centerpiece of On the Water is the soft, aching “Where I Found You”. Herring resorts — uncharacteristically — to generalities in the verses (“I remember… / The way that you walked / And laughed”), but he makes up for it in the chorus’ cleverly unusual sentiment: “Look back / Hold onto the last / Don’t let the present push out the past.” In a simple turn of phrase, Herring expresses an idea almost anathema to American culture: the notion that not only should we not keep our eyes constantly on the future, but that we should actively dwell on our pasts and the comforts available there. Perhaps more importantly, his understated and gently double-tracked vocal sell the song’s deeply felt loss without question, aided by Cashion and Welmers’s unobtrusive, airy backdrop. There’s nothing quite like it in the Future Islands discography, and not much like it anywhere else in 2011, either.
Pair “Where I Found You” with the heartbreaking “The Great Fire”, where Herring duets with Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, and you might find yourself short of breath. Wasner has the sort of voice from those movies about the down-and-out bar chanteuse who finally finds love by the time the credits roll — a creaking vibrato, sultry and world-weary. She and Herring trade off in the mix, singing, “If you let / Me be there again / I’ll be still / Won’t say a word,” and prove able to provide that paradox almost unique to pop music: the ability to create something at once breathtakingly sad and completely desirable, a song in which to willingly lose yourself, over and over.
On the Water begins and ends with field recordings made by the band, with the quietly clanking sounds of a dock on the Atlantic in Elizabeth City, NC. The noises are fitting, quietly cyclical and gently evocative of a process of ebb-and-flow, of slow — and beautiful — loss. These are the emotions of On the Water, and Future Islands create them with hands that rarely tip to show the careful craft that must have gone into building a stunner like this one. If the record was inspired by loss, we’ve gained something rich and affirming through that process.