Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is The Far Field, the fifth album from Baltimore’s Future Islands.
Is there an unlikelier band destined for the second line of festival lineups, for transcendent late night performances, and big album releases than Future Islands? When Future Islands first broke in a big way nationally--thanks to their first truly great song, “Before the Bridge,” in 2011--it seemed like they were destined to be Wham City weirdos making heart-on-sleeve synth-pop, the kind who’d be able to tour indefinitely to the same small and devoted fan base and who’d make solidly constructed small albums for small indie labels. But then, this happened:
Future Islands went from being Dan Deacon contemporaries to being one of indie rock’s most beloved bands. They impressed Letterman so much that they ended up playing one of his last shows too. The difference in the band is evident in that second performance; they have a platform now, and they’re going to use it.
The Far Field is the first Future Islands album post the band becoming A Thing, but there isn’t really much of a bearing of that added audience on their music. The songs still swell, the lyrics are all heart-on-sleeve, and it still sounds like the illest dance party at a coke den in 1987. However, the major change is that while “Seasons” felt like a monolith towering over the rest of Singles, The Far Field is an album that swings big on every song. The scope is bigger, the sounds more mountainous. This is Future Islands as a band ready to open arenas, ready to headline festivals, ready for yet the next major phase of their career.
Future Islands’ appeal is only partially the rolling waves of synths they construct from thin air; the main draw is Samuel T. Herring, the most unique voice in all of indie rock. A barrel chested guy who looks like he walked off the set of On the Waterfront and into a rock band, his voice is a rich, varied instrument, capable of getting low into a crouch and growling, and capable of sounding like he’s the horn summoning an army of White Walkers to the Wall. He goes mellow on “Beauty on the Road,” seductive on “Candles,” and a powerhouse on “Time on Her Side,” the biggest bid for “Seasons” 2 this album has. But the album’s most thrilling moment is listening to Herring trading verses with Blondie’s Debbie Harry on “Shadows,” opening up the alluring idea of hearing the Future Islands dudes do a duets album with any woman singer who dabbles in synth pop. Having Herring’s voice tempered by Harry’s smoke-ravaged vocals adds a new dimension that you never want to end.
It’s possible that The Far Field is too consistent, since that’s a quality we don’t value much in music, for some reason. It’s a really great record by a really great band, and there’s not much more to intellectualize or deconstruct. Its main charm is in the way it warmly embraces you like an old friend. This is an album destined for bleary eyed nights spent around barbecues this summer.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, co-produced VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced The Story of Vanguard and The Story of Willie Nelson. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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