Synth-pop collective Future Islands has to be the most unassuming rock stars of the last decade.
Lead singer Samuel Herring has rocked the same greying widow’s peak for the last decade with a revolving-door assortment of colorful dress shirts and chunky dad shoes. Bassist William Cashion looks like someone aged comedian Blake Anderson with a Snapchat filter. Keyboardist Gerrit Welmers, with his lanky figure, looks like the friendliest face at Geek Squad.
Future Islands not only looks downright adorable, but the band’s stage performances are absolutely bombastic. After a guest appearance on “Late Night with David Letterman” in 2014, the group saw almost immediate viral success. The performance is as electrifying as the track’s synth-laden warbles.
The viral moment propelled Future Islands from unknown festival frequenters to selling out shows as indie darlings overnight. Their breakthrough LP “Singles” was critically acclaimed, and the followup record “The Far Field” was equally applauded.
After three years of waiting, Future Islands has unveiled its latest venture, “As Long As You Are.” While not deviating from the formula of atmospheric synth plucks and electronic drums from which the group made their name on, Herring delivers a passionate effort bleeding with unbridled charisma.
Herring doesn’t sound like any other voice in synth-pop. In a genre usually dominated by light, breathy vocals which compliment the bouncy backing tracks, Herring’s vocals are exactly the opposite. They’re heavy, bassy and incredibly dramatic — frequently stretching out syllables and utilizing long pauses to give the audience a chance to reflect on his lyrical material.
What’s even more impressive is Herring’s ability to add jubilant energy to mellow backing tracks. The best example of this can be seen in “For Sure.” While on its own, the alternating kick-snare drums, reverb-heavy power chords and bass licks provide an enjoyable experience, Herring’s powerful vocal inflections transform a good track into a standout one. On the chorus, Herring assures his other half he will never allow himself to get in the way of their goals. It’s pained yet courageous.
“Plastic Beach” is another occurrence where Herring’s vocal performance improves the quality of a generally formulaic backing track. It utilizes almost the same drum pattern as “For Sure” but adds in a few claps and rimshots to make the electronic drums feel organic. While the guitar strums and synth are too mellow for their own good, Herring keeps the track flowing with earnest lyrics describing how to love yourself despite the conditions around you. When Herring describes how he has “Spent a lifetime in the mirror / Picking apart what I couldn’t change,” it’s not only heartbreaking, but also incredibly relatable.
The line is equally as important to Herring. In an interview with The Independent, Herring delves deeper into the lyric’s meaning.
“That line really breaks me. If I want to change things about myself, but my face is made up of all the people I love, how could I ever want to change that?”
Adding to Herring’s brilliant vocal performance is the album’s fantastic lyrical composition. Herring exposes his frailty to the audience in almost every track. In another standout track, “Thrill,” Herring discusses his battle with addiction during the band’s beginning days in Greenville, North Carolina. The track envelops you in the isolated headspace Herring was in at the time. Lines detailing Herring falling apart at the local bar as the bartender refuses to give him any more drinks is another heartbreak in a series of melancholic melodies.
While Herring encapsulates his greatest fears, the surrounding elements fail to capture the same effect. The electronic instrumentation proves far too bare compared to the lyrical density Herring delivers. Since Herring frequently utilizes pauses when delivering his stories of heartbreak, it’s impossible to ignore how naked tracks like “City’s Face” and “Moonlight” feel. Strumming techniques are frequently reused, the same kick sound is used for the entire record and the airy synths don’t hold the weight that they should.
Overall, “As Long As You Are” is still a solid record. Herring is as charismatic as ever, and the lyrics should give each listener at least one topic to ponder and reflect upon. It’s just a shame that Herring has to do much of the heavy lifting.