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Album review: Future Islands 'The Far Field'

The Far Field

Future Islands are in many ways an unlikely success story. On paper they don’t make much sense, a front man who looks like the love child of Henry Rollins and David Brent with a dance style inherited from the latter, a penchant for 80s synth sounds and almost no guitars in sight. However, with the release of 2014 album Singles – particular leading track ‘Seasons (waiting on you)’ – and helped by a performance on David Letterman, Future Islands became one of the most interesting bands in recent years.

Seemingly appearing from nowhere and earning themselves a level of popularity and credibility almost instantaneously, Future Islands have provided some of the strongest pop music in a particularly competitive field. Though ostensibly an over night sensation, the reality proved in excess of a decade of hard work which saw the Baltimore-based quartet reach their current level of commercial success, honing their craft over the course of three previous albums as well as numerous musical side projects.

With their fifth album The Far Field, the band has taken the natural progression from where Singles left of. The album was recorded with John Congleton at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles and is the first to feature live drums by Michael Lowry, it also features string and horn arrangements by Patrick McMinn giving a full and at times more organic sound than earlier works.

Opening track ‘Aladdin’ is a slow burner, drums tease on disco and Samuel Herring’s voice claws to breaks out, but instead remains regimented throughout with obscure lyrics: “Were the animals breathing life into June just to see faith”, “Stressed by the distance of shoes & the bridges too far to be named” somehow disguised by their delivery.

‘Shadows’ sees a duet between Herring and Debbie Harry, with their back and forth rhetoric reflecting on lost love “These old shadows parade you like a fool, you’re living in dust while a ghost hangs coats on you” although distinctive the track feels slightly forced together but the juxtaposition of their characteristic vocals adds a new dimension.

Herrings vocals verge at times on theatrical but luckily never cross the cusp. His lyrics are sometimes open and smart and sometimes bizarre, covering love and heartbreak, growing old and reflections of the last ten years of life in a band, strung together into impressive melodies. His unique and unmistakable voice is the strongest element of the album, complimented by Gerrit Welmers’ sonic arrangement and William Cashion’s bass grooves which vary from subtle to full-blown 80s power pop. Every track is a mid-temp synth-ballad with an anthemic coating each having strength enough to be a single yet only just holding together enough to work as an album narrative.

If criticism were to be drawn it could easily be said that Herring and co. have found a winning formula and very much stuck to it. The Far Field is polished but not sterile, it embraces many pop traits but to the most part avoids cliché, it comes across as well judged and well-shaped but self restrained, a characteristic that could be purposefully implemented or a product of over caution, a fear of ruining a good thing. Even so the album demonstrates the ability to provide emotion and authenticity within a structured pop song, something missing from many contemporary peers.