In 2014, the Baltimore-based synthpop group Future Islands unexpectedly became a viral hit. Featured on the Late Show with David Letterman in the U.S., and Later… with Jools Holland in the U.K. shortly afterwards, the lead single from their fourth album, the emotionally resonant Seasons (Waiting on You), was named the best song of 2014 by esteemed publications, such as NME and Pitchfork. The band found themselves playing festivals such as Coachella and Glastonbury, and, determined to keep up with the demand for new music, they rushed out another album, 2017’s The Far Field. Despite positive reviews and good sales, the quartet of Samuel Herring (vocals), Gerrit Welmers (keyboards), William Cashion (guitars) and Michael Lowry (percussion) have described the record as ‘condescending’ and ‘embarrassing’: ‘we lost ourselves’.
Released in early October 2020, their latest album As Long as You Are is especially meaningful. It sees the band going back to what they do best – producing emotive, atmospheric synthpop with a heavy dose of nostalgia. This is especially evident in the first single released from the album, For Sure. Whilst retreading over the same ground as some of their previous songs (the melody is lifted almost entirely from 2014’s A Dream of You and Me), the chorus is still wonderfully moving, as Herring emphatically declares, ‘I will never keep you from an open door’. As one of the most distinctive voices in music, Herring’s gruff, but warm, vocals bring his deeply felt lyrics to life.
The incredibly relaxing opener Glada eases us gently into the album through its carefully judged ambient synths and retro soundscape. Closing your eyes, you can almost visualise ‘the slow lapping waves’ that Herring describes. By the album’s third track, Born in a War, the band are tackling potent political issues, such as toxic masculinity and gun violence, accompanied by Lowry’s relentless drums and Cashion’s driving bass. It is to their credit that this doesn’t feel shoehorned in – the progression from song to song is unforced. The album effortlessly flows onwards to I Knew You, an album standout, which reflects on finding closure from a past relationship (‘now, we’ll leave it all said and done […] something in the cold of your eyes/said goodbye’). The track is replete with Welmers’ mournful and eerie synths, which also help to create the atmosphere of alienation and loneliness on City’s Face.
Later tracks on the album, such as The Painter and Hit the Coast, owe heavy debts to 1980s electronic pop in both their lyricism and stylistic execution. It is the dark poignancy of these tracks which creates the album’s intense feeling. One of the album’s most devastating and relatable moments comes in Plastic Beach, as Herring comes to terms with insecurities around his appearance: ‘Spent a lifetime in the mirror/Picking apart what I couldn’t change/But I saw my mother, my father, my brother/In my face’.The appeal of Future Islands as a band could be said to be their ability to take old and familiar sounds and fashion them into something new, exciting and fresh. Listening to As Long as You Are is a reminder why the band found fame in the first place – because of the intensely personal relationship between their music and the listener. That is a connection that I think we could all do with right now.
Review By: Niamh Smith