With ‘As Long As You Are,’ Future Islands Inject a New Romantic Sensibility Into Their Sound
To come across as clearly sincere, and still strike a resonant chord is something that few manage to achieve, and among those is Baltimore, Maryland’s Future Islands. You wouldn’t guess they were from Baltimore, upon hearing frontman Samuel T. Herring’s vocals — but then again, this is a performance space, free of provincial dictates, as art always should be, and the liberties this band takes, in that respect alone, make them a triumph. Their music taps into a mix of synth-pop and post-punk sensibilities, with its backbeat-oriented manifestation, and turns it into relevant and imaginative outpourings. Their album, “As Long As You Are,” is the latest and most emphatic example of the band’s general posturing, and likely their most realized work to date.
Opener “Glada” begins with the sounds of chirping birds, specifically the “Glada” or “Red Kite” bird. Taking artistic inspiration from nature might be standard practice, but the Glada is just the type of creature to justify such actions, with unique swirling motions and flashes of red that compel one to marvel at the wonders of nature. This is a suitable starting point for Herring, as his every gesture throughout the album seems born of this sentiment. His theatrical flourishes are on full display, even a few seconds in, but redeems himself promptly with lyrics that demonstrate a passion justifying the means of expression. He sings, “They said, ‘Heaven’s a mystery, unless you’re a star’… But they’re wrong,” and delivers it with all the conviction that such a weighty declaration ought to contain. He asks, “Who am I? / Do I deserve the sea again?” raising questions about the nature of life, having arisen from the ocean, a bit like Bjork did in “Oceania,” but pitched as more of a fleeting thought.
The band kicks into their usual rhythmic force on single “For Sure,” with a driving bassline and backbeat, alongside cloudy synths and Herring’s ever emphatic vocals. The song tackles the surprisingly unexplored relationship between love and trust, as both are ultimately romantic shots in the dark. The heavily ‘80s-informed stylings of Future Islands have always been a perfect fit for Herring’s dramatic streak, and this song highlights the chemistry at the core. Herring has a knack for slicing lines into snippets that strike with maximum stagecraft, and his efforts are enhanced here by choirs that blend into the band in a grand gestalt.
“Born In a War” is an elegantly political statement, with Herring taking on everything from guns and jails to public schools, and concluding, “When a strong man cries / Is when a strong man dies.” The music plods along with a levity and lighthearted vigor that mock the gravity of the lyrics, in a way that hints at a comfort in communal struggle. The end portion of the song features one of Herring’s most impassioned performances ever, with his already emotive vocals extending to literal screaming. Herring’s voice reaches new extremes with his grunting antics on “I Knew You.” Reverberating vintage synths and wheezing sounds are an ideal conveyance for the emotion on display, and there is an indulgence in classic songcraft that comes with lyrics that build to a climax of “Not the way, the way, you used to.” By the point of “City’s Face,” we are headlong into the ‘80s — specifically, imagine a sentimental slow dance with the tackiest of decorations, and synths running rampant. Again, Herring zeroes in on a relatable concern, the experience of leaving a city, especially when one’s very sense of self seems inextricably tied to the spirit of the locale.
All of the whimsical asides that we find Herring exploring over the course of the album find a focus on “Waking,” an appropriately titled song expressing a moment of realization. Herring sings about coming to terms with one’s self and assuming a communal role, commanding, “Give a little bit,” and finishing off the statement, alternating between “of you” and “for you,” as the band plods on with more energy and relish than ever. “The Painter” is a song that Herring described as “about realizing one of your good friends or one of your really close family members is a Trump supporter.” He reacts with contempt and condescension, charging, “I once called you friend / Greatest fool I know.” This can come across as either righteous indignation or reductive sanctimony, depending on your perspective, but either way, Herring delivers in a chorus that makes an instant impact.
All of the wide-eyed wonder that characterizes Future Islands’ music reaches new heights on “Plastic Beach,” with Herring not only wearing his heart on his sleeve, but also wearing particularly flashy sleeves. There are a couple climactic moments that add to the impact of “Born In a War,” likely securing a place for Herring among the ranks of the most legendary singers. At this point, a theme of acceptance, self-containment, composure, and connectivity has made itself into nearly every song, to some degree. It finds its most direct exploration in “Moonlight,” over a post punk bassline that might just be the most infectious and intriguing thing Future Islands has ever produced.
On the opening track “Glada,” Herring romanticized the sea. Upon “Thrill,” however, this emerges in new focus, as Herring relates the endurance of the oceans, despite all turbulence, to the resilient instincts everyone has inborn. The band end with a perfect concluding gesture, on “Hit the Coast,” a song in which those ‘80s synths, already rather shamelessly indulged habitually, go far out of town. It’s a brilliant, immersive ending to an evocative album, and when Herring sings the titular line, it rings like the proper consolidation of an album’s worth of musings.
“As Long As You Are” is an album that can trigger tears, raise eyebrows, and ultimately elicit empathy, which is an especially admirable duty for music at the moment. The theatrical stylings of Herring and crew have always been a bit eccentric. Rather brilliantly, this makes them a perfect outlet for expressing the anxieties of current times. Having already crossed the barrier of standard critical scrutiny, they take a free survey of everything at hand, and serve up their take on a raw platter. The music is savory, and ultimately the lyrics are too, but they’re savory by the sake of dangerous spices.
“As Long As You Are” releases Oct. 9 on Apple Music.