Updated: Oct 21, 2020
As Long As You Are from Baltimore synth pop kings Future Islands has uplifting-melancholy in abundance, proof of their staying power and deserving of all the acclaim its receiving. Have they finally shaken off their viral 2014 Letterman television performance?
Overcoming their Letterman performance
It wouldn't be a Future Islands review without taking you back to their 2014 performance of 'Seasons (Waiting on You)' on the David Letterman show (which can be viewed below). It wasn't for the song itself that brought notoriety to the band (at this point on their fourth album and largely unheard of), but frontman Samuel T Herring's passionate on-stage performance which featured a comical squat dance move, chest-pumping and a brief interruption into Death Metal screaming. It immediately brought them into mainstream limelight.
Overnight, the band went from underground unknowns to the hottest name on the lips of the music press with the song even being awarded best track of 2014 by NME and Pitchfork. Despite the acclaim, something didn't quite feel right. They'd played over 600 shows and were four albums into their career, but that one performance threatened to define them, turning them into a meme and a passing fad. Soon this attention would negatively affect the band, losing their honesty in place of "playing the game".
Their follow-up album - 2017's The Far Field - certainly had it's moments, though was definitely missing the spark which brought 2014's Singles to the fore. Herring later admitted that the success afforded to them had affected their song-writing for the worse; "that record is condescending because I wasn't honest in my writing" he said in a recent interview with The Guardian. The band rushed the production to ensure it was finished in time for a prominent slot at Coachella 2017, a slot which required the album's completion. Looking back, bassist William Cashion described this behaviour as "f****** embarrassing...rushing to make that deadline was bullshit".
Frontman Samuel Herring recently admitted that it had taken him six years to come to terms with their Letterman performance. For years he'd been affected greatly by the scrutiny and pressure put on him in the months and years following. No longer disturbed by this, they changed their approach and were able to produce their sixth album As Long As You Are on their own terms. Already a fan, though still unconvinced of the shelf life of the band, I eagerly pressed play on Friday morning (9 October) to judge their latest release.
What's the verdict?
The verdict is in...and what a fantastic record Future Islands have produced! On first listen, I was absolutely captivated and over time this would only ever grow. There's just something about this band's sound which fully engages you from the off, taking you on an emotional rollercoaster which you'll immediately be queuing for again upon completion.
On their latest effort - which weighs in at 44 minutes and 28 seconds - there's no major surprises on show, though, if anything it's a more hard-hitting and impassioned listen than ever before. The Baltimore band definitely further refine the sound they've become famous for; a healthy mix of slow and upbeat melancholic synth pop songs. The eccentricity of vocalist Sam Herring combines perfectly with the nostalgic synths and funky bass lines to create an emotional sound both unique and unrivalled in today's Indie scene.
Sad yet uplifting
One thing you quickly notice about the record is the underlying sadness yet hopefulness it possesses. There are many melancholic bands out there, but no one can quite give you that heart-warming feeling Future Islands can, a vibe with strong staying power.
It's hard to pinpoint the band's greatest weapon, such is the quality of their music with each instrument playing its role perfectly. If you were to choose, it's hard to look beyond Samuel Herring's powerful vocals, which paint poetic, emotional landscapes and explosive choruses having you thumping your chest as you yearn to replicate his passion. He's a simply brilliant frontman, both in stage presence and his overdramic singing style and you're hard pressed to find someone quite like him in today's game.
The best tracks
The album begins with Scandinavian inspired track 'Glada' (glada is a common bird in Southern Sweden where Herring currently lives), a more downtempo song than what we're used to, but Herring's powerful vocals in the hook carry it into life ("Who am I? / Do I deserve to see again? / The slow lapping waves / Bathing my face in light"). It's a song about feeling worthy of love, setting the album's thematic tempo of self-acceptance.
'For Sure' immediately follows and it might just be the best song they've ever produced. With a signature Future Islands sound featuring powerful vocals, dreamy synths and a funky bass-line, it's a heart-warming track about "love and trust"'. Upon release in July I loved it so much I named it my second favourite Indie song of the summer.
In an Instagram post from 6 July 2020 the band provided the meaning behind the song:
"For Sure is a song about love and trust, because one cannot exist without the other. It’s a summer song, where love is the sea, and trust is giving us the courage to jump. And love is waiting. Trust is waiting. It’s a song about opened doors and closed ones. Ones that open into the world and ones that never close. For Sure was written in the summer of 2018 but it’s coming out in a very different kind of summer. So many people around the world are far away from those we love, unable to hold them, through fear of sickness and death, or quarantined by closed borders. And all we can do is wait, hold on to that love, and trust those around us to make the right decisions. So that hopefully, next summer, we’ll be back together, on that precipice, jumping into the sea." Future Islands, Instagram, 6 July 2020
'Plastic Beach' is another typically brilliant Future Islands track, the emotive synths and powerful vocals setting the scene for lyrics about self acceptance and learning to love yourself ("Spent a lifetime in the mirror / Picking apart what I couldn't change / But I saw my mother, my father, my brother / In my face"). The more laid-back 'Moonlight' follows, William's Cashion's bass carrying the song forward, supported by subtle synth textures. Again, it's song about acceptance, Samuel Herring describing it as "about recognising the holes in ourselves and recognising the whole of others".
Perhaps ironically named 'Thrill' is definitely the most emotional song on the album, it's about sadness and isolation in today's age. The synths really paint that picture of helplessness and it's amongst the most unique on the album.
They say you should leave the listener on a high and that's exactly what Future Islands do through the broken hearted final track 'Hit the Coast'. With the band at their nostalgic and melancholic best, Herring describes escaping from the sadness in his life to new scenery. The album finishes with the lyrics, "I put my whole life / In my car / When you go / Just take you what can take / And change what you can do / I'll hit the coast". An emotional end which pulls on the heart strings (they don't do any other kind...) and, in all honesty, I didn't want the song to end.
It's all about the second half
There are no skippable tracks on the record and at 11 tracks - the longest of which lasts 4 minutes 49 seconds ('The Painter') - it flows brilliantly, maintaining engagement throughout. You have to credit the band for keeping it tight, compared to say Fleet Foxes' new album Shore which had a great first half, but felt bloated by the second. In contrast, on As Long As You Are, the second half steals the show, leaving you wanting more following the emotive conclusion of 'Hit the Coast'.
The 80s synths have carried greater prominence this year than any other through the success of The Weeknd's After Hours and Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia, but Future Islands have been mastering the synth pop sound for over a decade now. Through this album, they've proved that this style isn't just a flash in the pan, uncovering a hopeful emotion to counter the sadness. It just gives you a feeling that no other artist can.
An album to remind you that you still have emotions, feel uplifted and accept yourself. Future Islands are definitely more than the meme they're often portrayed as.
I'll go for lead single 'For Sure', 'Plastic Beach' and final song 'Hit the Coast'.
Best listened to when...
You're wanting to feel uplifted. The songs deal with love and self-acceptance, just be prepared for an emotional rollercoaster.