I’ll be the first to admit that I slept on Future Islands.
It wasn’t just the vocals. Future Island’s beating heart Sam Herring has the most embellished timbre this side of a high school opera, but the campy ’80s synths were no less damning. Still, their stock rose, with a performance on Letterman worthy of the internet dog pile it garnered and reams of buzz after their time at SXSW (including the new-ish Grulke prize for Developing U.S. act).
So on my next walk to work, I slapped on some headphones and gave their new album, “Singles,” its proper due. By the end of its first oddball pop chorus, all the apprehension fell away.
“Singles” is just that—an album of (almost) all single-worthy tracks. Some will make you want to turn whatever open space you’re walking through, no matter how public, into a dance floor; others will slump over your heart; many will do both at the same time. It’s a testament to Herring’s songwriting, which both lyrically and melodically, is as grandiose here as in any songs he’s penned.
The synths and vocal oddity are still camp, but appropriately so. As if the lead in an Andrew Lloyd Webber production, Herring wrings every note dry, committing a thousand percent to each verse and chorus. All the slinking gyrations and fiery glares he loosed on Letterman during “Seasons (Waiting On You),” the true single of “Singles,” is audible on the album. On “Spirit,” he sings with all the the mysterious authority of Webber’s Phantom of the Opera: “Spirit dives to catch your truth / Spirit thrives where darkness comes to challenge you.”
“Singles” is the uncommon album that works in pieces over the car stereo, in concerted headphone listens and, rarest of all, onstage in front of all your exes. Great as these songs are on their own, the whole of the album plays like the soundtrack to a Herring’s theatrical opus. There’s the hero’s somber journey home, on the sublime “A Song For Our Grandfathers” and the sparely lit narrative nadir in “Lighthouse” and “Fall From Grace,” featuring raw bouts of scream-singing in case you weren’t picking up what it’s putting down. “A Dream of You and Me” acts to close the loop of the story, harkening back to the issues at hand in “Seasons,” this time with upturned palms instead of clenched, chest-beating fists.
Future Islands bet big in recording “Singles” between record contracts and on their own dime, but it’s paid off in spades. Eight years after retiring their old band name, Art Lord and the Self-Portraits, they’ve officially arrived—oddly enough, thanks to an album so sweepingly dramatic that Herring sounds the part of Art Lord more here than any of his previous releases.
See photos of Future Islands at SXSW below:
Dylan Owens is Reverb’s all-purpose news blogger and album reviewer. You can read more from him in Relix magazine and the comment sections of WORLDSTARHIPHOP.