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Sun March 16, 2014
First Listen: Future Islands, 'Singles'
Originally published on Wed March 26, 2014 8:41 am
A couple weeks ago a writer friend texted me a screengrab of an Instagram of a stocky guy in a tight black T-shirt tucked into pleated black slacks. The pants were held at his actual waist by a black leather belt with a gold buckle. After the photo the friend texted simply "NORMCORE?" The man in black was Samuel Herring, lead singer of Future Islands, and he was already meme-ing his way into the hearts of thousands on Tumblr because of a certain dance move.
This was, quite possibly, the best and worst introduction to Future Islands. Worst because, well, NORMCORE. Best because the band's performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, from whence the original Instagram came, was anything but normal. They played Singles' lead single "Seasons (Waiting on You)." Herring howled and grumbled his way through it, dipping down low to do said dance move, then standing tall to audibly pound his chest and search for meaning. It was mesmerizing, like watching a young Marlon Brando yell "Stellaaaaaa" into the Barrymore's cheap seats. The rest of the band just stood there like stagehands doing their jobs.
Great performances like that raise expectations, especially if they're introductions, especially if they're to promote a new album on national television. So that is the weight on Singles, and yet, miraculously, it doesn't crumble. Singles is extremely catchy, well-constructed classic pop: winsome and simple melodies, yearning lyrics, bass lines that will never die. It is also dark and desperate and serious in a way that feels fairly rare these days. There is no ironic withdrawal, no equivocation to avoid abuse, just pure commitment. Herring's voice, which can go from searching whisper to hoarse demonic shout on a pivot, does much of this heavy lifting. He sings like a Teamster with an adorable family of twelve. Must be a Baltimore thing.
With Singles, Herring and his bandmates, Gerrit Welmers and William Cashion, have hit upon something that seemed in development on their previous records. Captivating and confident songwriting coalesce with a troubling vision of fields once green and now fallow, falls from grace, and fading away. Honest and earnest when few asked for it; willing to bare their souls, no matter how abnormal they might be, in front of millions; searching for answers where there are probably none; and yet still ideal for an oblivious two-step. Future Islands are probably deserving of something more in this existence than a four-second gif-loop with no sound, but these are dark times. At least they're dancing on the edge of the abyss.