You don't usually get to see the precise moment when a band erupts from murmur to scream. For Future Islands, it happened on camera: Their performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on David Letterman’s Late Show suddenly rocketed the Baltimore trio to a wide national spotlight. In those critical minutes, singer Sam Herring held a gaze that reminded even viewers at home that Letterman's studio was packed with living people just off-screen. He seemed completely unconscious of the cameras that leered at him. He sang with an urgency that can rarely be held by a television screen or a YouTube window.
Of all the small-label standbys to break big, Future Islands is one of the strangest. They play a brand of anodyne, 80s-nostalgic synth-pop that until recently lay interred in cliché. The tones that Gerrit Welmers pushes from his synthesizers unabashedly court badness; squeaky leads, shrink-wrapped arpeggios, and brash drum beats populate Future Islands' instrumental spaces. Rather than excavate the forgotten gems or critic-approved art-pop of former decades like Ariel Pink and Bon Iver, Future Islands go right for the schmaltzy chart toppers—think “Careless Whisper” or “Total Eclipse of the Heart”. But they don't just mimic the plastic ballads of their childhoods. They smash them open and blast light on the guts.
Singles, Future Islands' fourth official full-length, is the band's clearest, firmest work. The band toyed with indie psychedelia on previous efforts and then they grew bold enough to drop it. Rather than stay safe within trendy aesthetics, Welmers and bassist William Cashion slowly tuned their sound to bolster Herring's exquisite affect. Before Singles, Future Islands were an indie pop band with a strange, charismatic singer. Now, they're a cohesive force biting deep into what pop is and what it can do.
They are one of the few bands for whom it's a compliment to say they'd be terrible without their frontman. On their own, Future Islands' instrumentals have no aesthetic pull. But throw Herring in the middle of the disco ball spangles, and the music transforms into a rich, fascinating cultural object. He does not sing or write lyrics as though he is above the melodrama of his sources. The irony of Future Islands is not that they play corny '80 music as a knowing, clever in-joke. The irony is that they take a style of music that has faded to a joke and then they mean it to death.
Herring lets the role of performer consume him. He's not interested in playing a person with a transparent private life, a buddy to relate to on a casual scale. He's not on stage so you can think of him as the guy next door. Instead, he inflates slivers of his private life to monstrous proportions, shrouding them in romantic language. Mostly he sings about love and darkness. He starts his songs with a smooth croon, and he usually ends up breaking into an unearthly growl.
Some tracks, like “Spirit” and “Sun in the Morning”, are big and buoyant, with rubbery bass lines and swelling choruses. Others are more muted, nearing post-punk. “Lighthouse” languishes in string-addled melancholy as Herring sings about driving away a loved one with the frightening parts of his inner self: “This is where we were when I showed you the dark / Inside of me, in spite of me, on a bench in the park.” It is one of the greatest human fears, to fall in love and then to bare something in yourself that ruins it. Herring frames that nightmare in a way that is both maximal and utterly delicate. “Nothing hurts this much,” he sings in passing.
With his wide, startling vocal range, Herring exposes the darkness that lurks inside those songs that have been all but laughed off by contemporary culture. The album's climax “Fall From Grace” presents the most dramatic textural contrast in the band's whole discography. It starts like the rest, a persistent, tacky ride driving the beat. It builds. At the chorus, it breaks apart: Herring snaps into a perfect death metal howl, all grit and charcoal. The band joins him in the burn, but it only lasts a second. Welmers' synths swoop right back in to lift the song up to the artificial stars on the ceiling of the dance hall.
Singles is a perfectly titled record. Herring says that it's an arrogant title, an assertion that each song on the track list is good enough for radio play. The word also brings to mind those fallen hits condemned to an afterlife of kitschy reissues and late night television ads. The third meaning is the most resonant: a plural noun used to group together those who age alone, who scroll through paid dating websites night after night, who stand by the wall at community mixers while George Michael plays over bad speakers, looking and looking and looking.