It is only January, but 2024 already promises to be a dire and unremitting year: a presidential election in the US, regional war in the Middle East, the continued muddle of Ukraine, cryptic North Korean posturing, and more. Yet, only a few weeks in, the indomitable Future Islands have given us a new album that is neither escapist nor overtly social or political in its purpose or commentary. People Who Aren’t There Anymore provides a torch in dark times. It gives hope.
People still talk about the breakthrough appearance of Future Islands on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2014. It is worth revisiting on YouTube. Performing the song “Seasons (Waiting on You)” from their album Singles, the vocal charisma and total-bodied expressiveness of frontman Samuel T. Herring are on full display, a gobsmacking mix of male vulnerability and no-fucks-left-to-give attitude. Similar stage-inhabiting choreography is de rigueur with hardcore bands. However, this is a synthpop project with a gifted singer crooning and declaiming about the anticipation and agonies of patience and the passage of time. It works, and it remains special.
People Who Aren’t There Anymore is their third album since that moment, following The Far Field (2017) and As Long as You Are (2020), and it is a more introspective recording, as implied by the title. Across its 12 songs that reach three-quarters of an hour, loss and mortality are abiding themes. Songs like “Deep in the Night”, “Say Goodbye”, and “Give Me the Ghost Back’ construct spare worlds of disconnection, absence, and longing. In this manner, the unrequited sensibility of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” returns once more.
“What shall I do with this absurdity — / O heart, O troubled heart — this caricature / Decrepit age that has been tied to me….” These lines are not from Future Islands but the opening to “The Tower” (1928) by William Butler Yeats. It’s a poem about aging – the passage of time once more – and, coincidentally or not, Herring’s lyrics to the single “The Tower” seemingly genuflect to this earlier poem’s themes. “I am waiting on the other side,” Herring repeats in the chorus, the side he refers to being temporal as well as physical. “I lie, tell myself, ‘It’s okay’, when it’s not quite.”
With its imagery and abstract sentiments, “The Tower” is one of the best tracks on People Who Aren’t There Anymore. Herring is known for his literary references – The Far Field is titled after a collection by Theodore Roethke – and other tracks allude to other poets. The excellent opening song “King of Sweden” may or may not be inspired by William Wordsworth’s “The King of Sweden”. Either way, Herring brings the force of his intelligence to bear on the musical proceedings, adding weight to the danceable beats that take listeners in another direction.
If there is fault to be found, it’s that this new album strongly resembles its predecessors in style and sound. This LP isn’t a huge leap forward. Future Islands arrived at their established approach of magnetic synthpop a decade ago now, and it has been a difficult blueprint to fully revise or shake off, primarily because it works so well. Some tracks from the back half of People Who Aren’t There Anymore feel more formulaic as a result. When William Cashion’s electric guitar enters (intrudes?) on “The Sickness”, it presents an idea in need of further elaboration.
Despite these limitations, Herring remains a compelling guide in the emotional landscape he describes. Like a close friend, he’s a favored companion who refuses to abandon you. Indeed, the songs often alternate empathetically between first- and second-person perspectives. He understands how, under bleak circumstances, it is important to need one another and to keep going. On “Say Goodbye”, Herring sings, “I’ll sit up and watch this world burn bright/I’ll be alright when you’re on my time”.
People Who Aren’t There Anymore is that rare album where you might find yourself with the unusual but life-affirming compulsion to dance and quietly sob at the same time.