Future Islands have never been ones to hold back. On record, the Baltimore-based trio of Samuel T. Herring (vocals), William Cashion (bass), and Gerrit Welmers (keyboards) delivers lush, cerebral synthpop that’s as much at home on the dance floor as it is in the quietude of a long drive. And live, Future Islands combines these modes with expertise, layering programmed beats and expansive keyboard orchestrations with Herring’s immediate and emotional command of the mike.
For their third full-length album, the band ventured back to their home state of North Carolina, moved into a historic waterfront house in Elizabeth City, and went to work on the songs that would become On the Water. Like its predecessor (In Evening Air), Water overflows with the atmospheric synth notes and romantic subject matter that Future Islands have become known for. But in place of the rapid-fire keys and pulsating backbeats of older tracks like “Vireo’s Eye,” we get slower, more brooding offerings, not to mention some of Herring’s most brutally direct lyrics to date.
Of particular note is “Where I Found You,” On the Water‘s midway point and the song that Herring said is “where I took my biggest chances.” Over a gentle and insistent beat and twinkling synth line, Herring intones with his low, booming voice, urging his subject to look back and “hold on to the last,” before confessing, “You know I love you, and I still do.”
“It’s just a very direct statement toward memories and those trivial things that seem so small but are actually the greatest things of all,” said Herring recently, en route to a tour stop in Wichita. “That song just peeled right out of me; it was pretty much written in a day, and I think most of our best songs are written like that. They just kind of come out of nowhere.”
Don’t be mistaken, though: On the Water is far from a haphazard affair. The album’s press release describes it as a “visceral record about two parallel journeys — one physical and one psychological.” And Herring is similarly poignant when discussing its scope.
“The album, to me, is really about healing and acceptance of things, acceptance of life and its circumstances,” he explained. “It was created with a kind of truth and honesty to ourselves, I think the most that we’d ever really had to this point, especially in writing songs that we knew would be a little more challenging.”
As many fans will tell you, though, the challenge is a welcome one, and not without its more upbeat moments. Toward the end of On the Water, the band throws down “Balance,” an uplifting and almost anthemic synth rock track that seems to act as the bridge between Future Islands’ more dance-ready past and its present. Fittingly, Herring also sees it as where Water‘s overarching message lies.
“I think ‘Balance’ has maybe the thesis statement of the record, which is that it just takes time,” he considered. “That line deals with us as a band who’ve been working for a long time and pushing ourselves to follow through with this dream and keep it going, but it’s also a summation of the album in that things happen in our lives, but it’s maybe not so urgent as we might think. There’s always great love, and there’s always great loss. And things change, but everything works itself out in the end. Or it just is, and we just kind of have to accept.”
It’s a simple, yet oddly life-affirming message, and one that will no doubt resonate when the band returns to Muddy Waters this Wednesday, November 16, in support of On the Water. We highly recommend you don’t miss it.
Future Islands play Muddy Waters Café on Wednesday, November 16, at 6 p.m. (early show) and 8 p.m. (late show sold-out) with openers Ed Schrader’s Music Beat. For tickets and info, visit clubmercy.com.