On The Water
, October 26th, 2011 08:21
The sounds of a lonely dock, St Elizabeth, North Carolina. It's the sound of lapping saltwater and mooring cables knocking steadily against wet wood. Slowly, out of this peaceful conversation emerges Future Islands' On The Water, the story of a failed relationship, the ghost-ship it became, a shipwrecked soul, the mermaid he lost, and not least, a tiny cult band coming into their own, on a record about the dark waters of love's sunken past. In case of cynicism break glass for Future Islands, romantics to their very last barnacle. Romantic like 'True Love Ways', like chivalry in old black and white movies, like your mum and dad on a bandstand, in 50s Maine, falling in love.
Despite the combined efforts of Chairlift, Chew Lips and anything else Kitsuné have put out this millennium, making soulful music from synths remains a possibility while Future Islands are still around. Their stuff has always carried a degree of nostalgia melancholia, heady enough to make Ariel Pink feel a bit funny. But mobilising around an obviously bereft Herring on On The Water, the trio have distilled their already stingingly poignant sound into a potent concentrate. As is their bread and butter, lead single 'Beyond the Bridge' is techno-infused but disarmingly human, Herring's crushed vocals fainting over a house beat and William Cashion's twilit bass lines; amounting to something like a warm Ibiza summer anthem for manic-depressives. In contrast 'On The Water' is more traditional, organ and Spectorish heartbeat drums soundtracking the last waltz in a deserted dance hall, Herring asking "Can I be the one who saves your life?" in full knowledge that the answer will be no.
Oceanic in scale and made up of submerged textures, On The Water stands with both ankles in the brine. The band's everlasting metronomic rhythms, once the pace-maker for gurning indie-ravers, now replicate the perpetual motion of the sea, a symbol here of the unrelenting march of time. And all the while the eternally enchanting Sam T. Herring contemplates the depths and tries to forget 'her', swimming against the current that conspires to carry him further and further from his once blooming, now barren, island of sanctuary. Through the course of On The Water Herring comes to accept he could never have subsisted on sweet sorrow: if he'd stayed he'd have starved. Indeed they both would have. So instead he walks underwater below St Elizabeth pier, the lonely diver slow-motion bounding over a seabed strewn with memories – a museum of industrial detritus, rusted sea mines and half buried trinkets - before resurfacing to push a paper boat towards the horizon on 'Tybee Island', hushing the hard memory of her asleep to the sound of bubbling wash; an act of self-sacrifice that threatens to leave him with 'his head sinking beneath the sand" Then on closer 'Grease' he says goodbye. Granted On the Water is a 'love album', but much more than that - seldom has a long player narrated so fluidly, consummately and lucidly, a journey of self-realization.
The Harry Langdon of indie pop; it isn't Herring's lyrics that are affecting, so much as the delivery. It's that voice of his: the voice of pantomime absurdity, vaudeville weltschmerz, at once noble and naïve, and as much a personae as the true face of a natural freak. Meaning that otherwise generic lines like "There are the moments that we save / And the dreams that fade away", as which opens the album, have a way of touching a place no other singer can. You might compare the effect to Truman Burbank hitting the wall in his boat, and indeed, Herring is an everyman character of this same filmic breed.
Special mention should also go to keyboardist Gerrit Welmers, who has upped his game here. Whereas before the synths were largely moogy, fat and buzzy, here Welmers is nimble and versatile, wreathing lines like "Plead to the light in your eyes / I shield you like a candle" with tinkling arrangements that are intricate, sweet as opposed to cutesy (very much in the Vince Clarke vein) and as melodic as they are moving. There's depth charge boom, too: there aren't many bands that would power such intimate content with a booming kick drum, but Future Islands have every faith in 80s pop's ability to be flighty and sad at the same time.
A trio of gallant gents in a city of irony-damaged, post-techno dweeboids, Future Island's escape route from the grips of Baltimore's irony epidemic goes way beyond their propensity for sincerity - it's all about their devotion to childlike wonderment. And we get to share in that wonder: the Maryland natives are very probably the most giving, warmhearted and inclusive group of hipsters on the Eastern seaboard. What with the love-bursting Passion Pit and Beach House also sharing Baltimore real estate, you might argue that although the city has produced many of contemporary American indie's worst perpetrators (that's you, Ear Pwr), it also contains the heart many claimed the movement didn't have.