Future Islands - The Far Field

by Jon Burke Rating:7 Release Date:2017-04-07

Last we heard from Future Islands they were riding high on the success of their 2014 masterwork, Singles. The album’s appropriately hubristic title boasted the band had created an entire album’s worth of radio-ready pop gems and, true to their word, they had. Nearly every song on Singles was unique, catchy and pleasurable and the album started down the path toward slow burn indie success… And then the band performed on David Letterman and the world was exposed to the howling, dancing madness of Future Islands’ lead singer Sam Herring. What viewers of the broadcast, and subsequent YouTube replays, witnessed was a stocky Ian Curtis-type, occasionally possessed by the spirit of Count Grishnackh, fronting a Southern synth-pop band. Needless to say it was unlike anything else going on in music and led to instantaneous notoriety and high expectations for whatever came next.

The Far Field, Future Islands’ follow-up to Singles, is also appropriately titled in the way it suggests a nearly inaccessible place – a place which could include the rarefied perfection of Singles. As the press release for the album notes, Future Islands’ band members immediately jumped into other projects after ending their Singles tour in 2015 and then jumped immediately into writing new FI material in early 2016. With that kind of pace there was little time for the band to catch their breath, to reflect or relax – something that becomes immediately apparent when listening to the The Far Field. The album doesn’t have the same drive or expansive aspirations of its predecessor. Instead, The Far Field offers listeners a plateau. These are songs of the basecamp: reflective, never regressive, and clearly in awe of the journey thus far and the peaks to come. Whereas Singles felt like a consummate summer album, The Far Field embodies a wintry night huddled near the fire with stories to share and strong drink to pass around.

The Far Field’s opener, “Aladdin” is an odd choice to open an album burdened with such high expectations. From its vague lyrics to its slow pacing resulting in a soaring, string-heavy, conclusion make for a great middling track but completely lacking the punch many listeners will be prepared for. Similarly, “Time On Her Side”, though incredibly catchy, isn’t a particularly inspiring track two. It isn’t until The Far Field’s third track “Ran” that things pick up and head back into Singles territory. The breakneck pace and driving beat pair well with Herring’s mournful lyrics about a loveless world.

If Singles was Sam Herring’s record, lyrically and vocally, The Far Field really highlights the powers of keyboardist, Gerrit Welmers and bassist, William Cashion. Though they were the backbone, and truly the driving force behind Singles, they get the chance to be much more center stage here. The lack of focus on the lyrics in The Far Field draws the ear to the band and this is some of their best work. Welmers knows how to set-up a mood with endless fields of rolling synth and subtle but powerful drum programming. Cashion, like Peter Hook with a Zoloft prescription, adds a bounce to every track when appropriate. He’s also the rare bassist happy to take center stage and add some funk or deepen the dirge when necessary.

In terms of breaking the Future Islands sonic mold, several tracks on The Far Field present a very different side of the band. “North Star” feels like the best of latter day Talking Heads to the point one wonders if Herring will croon “North Star” to a lamp during live performances. “Candles” is a languid ballad of appreciation for supportive loved ones that pushes so far into R&B territory it could, with a few tweaks, get sampled on the next Rhianna album. “Shadows” features vocals from Debbie Harry whose raspy voice pairs so well with Herring it’s hard to believe this is their first duet. There are few greater pleasures to be had in 2017 than hearing Debbie Harry’s voice overtop a Welmers-Cashion groove.

The bottom line, when it comes to The Far Field, is the listener. The expectations and the hopes they bring to their first listen will determine the fate of this record in their future playlists. Though not nearly as perfect or unique as Singles, The Far Field offers a highly enjoyable listening experience. It’s an album that offers a band a chance to regroup, to innovate and to push ahead, hopefully toward their next perfect record.

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