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Music Review: Future Islands – ‘Singles’

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FI_singlesThe formula that Future Islands (on 4AD) employs on their album Singles is surprisingly simple. If you put a driving bass over an uptempo drum track, people will dance to it. It’s a formula that can have immediate visceral payoff, as is demonstrated by their lead single “Seasons,” but progression through the rest of the album yields a tiring foray into a synth pop swamp with limited payoff.

There are reasons why “Seasons” works well as the opening track. Herring’s over-inflection – usually alternating between whimpers and barks – is tamed to the point of expressing convincing emotion. The band puts together a chord progression that drives the narrative of the song to a peak.  Herring’s lyrics are restrained but expressive. “Seasons” is a great single, but things fall apart soon after.

Tracks like “Sun in the Morning,” “Light House” and “Dream of You and Me” suffer from a lyrical lack of depth that generates real awkwardness. Ironically, Herring’s over-inflection masks some of that awkwardness by way of distraction, but in the moments where the words come through, they are cringe-inducing. (“She looks like the moon. so close and yet so far,” “Beauty lies in every soul,” and “She talks right to my soul”). Vagueness in lyrics has been a characteristic of songwriting since the beginning of songwriting, but at least when Michael Stipe mumbled, you knew that he was mumbling something that you wanted to hear. Surely, Herring has real feelings of longing, but the lyrics fail to convey this feeling convincingly.

Like the lyrics, the instrumentation on the rest of the tracks is disappointing, and a lack of substantial hooks is the norm. The main appeal is essentially one of nostalgia – direct references to ’80s synth pop textures – but after the first few measures, the songs have revealed their payload. It’s an album with a polished sound and dance-able grooves to be sure. Beyond that, there are hints of nostalgia and longing, but hints are not enough to make for a compelling album, and besides, hints come pretty cheap.

Take the video for “Seasons,” for instance – veritable slow-motion pornography on the subject of authenticity (apparently, rural white America, where we are happy that people don’t change). It’s a nice trick – the implication of authenticity through juxtaposition over the song. However, the trick falls flat after a listen through an album of trite songwriting. In the way that pornography is not actually about love, authenticity porn is not actually about being authentic so much as the commodification of it.

Singles is available on CD and vinyl.

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About Fritz Chrysler

Fritz Chrysler is a classically trained concert violinist, with awards on the national and international level. He has a PhD in Philosophy and taught classes in Ethics and Philosophy of Art.
  • jgar

    I’d encourage a look at the official video for ‘Balance’, as it is thematically a near analog of the video for ‘Seasons’, without all the apparently bothersome caucasian-ness. (As an aside I might suggest that a reduction of romance to almost universally heteronormative terms might be more of a potential fault-line for the band than authenticity). Significantly, the lyrical theme for both of the songs/videos is change – with ‘Balance’ encouraging it, and ‘Seasons’ encouraging it by bemoaning the dearth of it. The success of the newer video, which (imo) suggests the band might be slightly ahead of some listeners/viewers, lies in the fact that they employ epic imagery for a song about moving on, all while never sacrificing empathy for the non-changing subjects themselves, or us.