It was Samuel T. Herring’s passion that captured the world’s attention when a cut-throat performance of ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’ went viral and catapulted Future Islands to global acclaim. He made no compromises, pouring everything into the show. He clearly had a gift, when driven by the band’s energy, to transform raw emotions into ecstasy.
For fans lucky enough to catch their shows, they became notorious for killing it on stage. But this energy hasn’t always translated to record, and their synth-pop anthems were treading familiar ground by 2017’s The Far Field. Their latest album on 4AD, As Long As You Are, invites us to hear the band refreshed, as they retreat to the coast to discover a warmer, more sentimental sound in the aftermath of that sudden fame.
The music crushes when it echoes the “slow lapping waves” Herring beautifully describes in the opener ‘Glada’. Ushering in layers of keyboards, the textures paint a serene if slightly saccharine backdrop for his poetic explorations of guilt. The line “Do I deserve the sea again?” lingers on the mind long after its finished, as the album returns time and again to images of the ocean as a metaphor for escape, contemplation and new beginnings.
Later, the slow-burning melody of ‘Thrill’ ignites its abstract lyrics, and the stripped-back ‘Moonlight’ tears bass lines from the annals of Joy Division / The Cure perfectly capturing the feeling of abandon those bands excelled at. Two of the most vulnerable and sparse moments on the record, these prove that restraint is the band’s best gift to the vocalist. An album with tracks that consistently hit this mood would have been hard to ignore.
Lead single ‘For Sure’, ‘Born in a War’ and ‘Waking’ are less evolutionary but inject the old synth-pop blueprints with a burst of energy from their new drummer, Mike Lowry. Bass lines pop with vigour and the added attack from the kit makes these feel more alive than on previous recordings. Here As Long As You Are comes closest to capturing the magic of their live shows with Herring purging his demons and preaching hope at full pelt.
Dig beneath their façade and some of the other compositions are less convincing. Predictable verse melodies undermine Herring’s examination of toxic relationships in ‘I Knew You’, and the synth-bop patterns of ‘The Painter’ threaten to kill the album’s flow. Nevertheless, the band continue to sell their message through sheer will, and the tracks’ shortcomings are masked behind their intensity and a liberal veil of 80s nostalgia.
It’s no surprise that Herring is the star of the show throughout, whose presence alone injects soul into the record. His vocals constantly shift, his growls at times resembling a clean-shaven, sober Tom Waits, making every line feel vital. As a concept album, As Long As You Are may lack the consistency to take you on the emotional journey it promises; we get snapshots of the energy Future Islands bring to their gigs, but it’s the slower, new-found spiritualism of tracks like ‘Glada’ that makes waves.