“Right time, wrong record,” read the text to my phone from a friend who counts as a Future Islands early-adopter. I knew immediately she was referring to the stream of the band’s latest album, the misleadingly titled, Singles, that debuted earlier that morning. She had written the only review that would matter, even as Pitchfork rushed to declare the record an “8.0”, the band’s most favorable write-up to date. The bizarrely compelling Future Islands performance of lead single from Singles, “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, from Letterman had already gone viral, the most watched Letterman performance in history. Lead singer, the balding and relatively-speaking “middle-aged” Samuel Herring, especially his weird mixture of sensuality and danger, Morrissey moved to your Dad’s basement, appeared built to destroy and survive a place as weird as the Internet. No, he wasn’t kidding on Letterman; he’s always been this way. The layperson finally arrived to Future Islands. The question was: What would they find here on the beach of the band’s new fame? Right time, wrong record.
The two strongest songs on Singles open the record, a distillation of the band’s power and efficacy. Riding Herring’s gravely pathos through chord resolutions that are as satisfying as anything made with a synthesizer since New Order, the album openers, “Seasons (Waiting on You)” and “Spirit” pulse with sharp hooks. Herring rides the chorus of “Seasons” up, settling the listener back to the verse with delicacy where a bass line ripped straight from New Order’s catalogue awaits. Arguably more satisfying, the blinking “Spirit” models the same swirling verses that whip themselves toward a tornado chorus. Herring purrs his way through lyrics like, “for dreams come to those who let them in their guarded room”, a not-bad lyrical metaphor for a band about to start playing the biggest rock clubs of their career. It is a satisfying opening couplet of songs, a package that belies some of the weakness of the rest of the record.
Herring isn’t out of ideas on buzzing jams like, “Doves” and the surprisingly satisfying “Back in the Tall Grass”, the songs asked to anchor the middle of the record, but the plaintive “A Song for Our Grandfathers” reveals an aesthetic exhaustion. You can only send the listener to the top of the room so many times, and though the band searches for this brand of transfiguration — ironically, a project that seemed so effortless on their previous two releases — it never quite arrives. The grinding “Fall From Grace” throws its gaze to the floor, a grimy doom-pop that recalls too much of Peter Bretter’s fictional Dracula musical from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. By the end, the listener can easily picture Herring singing, “Die … I can’t”. This isn’t exactly the serious, heart-break politics of “Seasons” and its charming reminder, “I’ve been waiting on you”. Perhaps a band can only raise the stakes so many times before it runs out of room, ambition, or ideas. By the end of Singles, not only are these not singles, they aren’t even the strong Future Islands songs from previous records.
The good news for Herring and his band is that no one seems to care about the relative quality of their latest record. Someone decided that this would be the album that would rocket the band to bigger clubs and at least tens of thousands of record sales. Was it simply their turn? Did we need this to be “the one”? Our relationship to independent rock bands can be poorly timed. Four years ago you could have packed into Death By Audio in Brooklyn, losing and finding some bit of yourself in the band’s earlier work. Those moments are gone, and now we have the Letterman performance and a critical consensus that this is Future Islands’ big break. There are good songs here to be sure, but a measure of skepticism shouldn’t just arise from the band’s original fan base. How certain are we that this represents their best work, the height of their powers? Right time, wrong record.