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Future Islands
The Far Field Lior Phillips , April 25th, 2017 11:18

The first hour or so at the wheel on a road trip, you feel invincible. Like you could drive for days. A couple of hours later, the rolling monotony starts to wear. Not long after that, your legs cramp, your butt aches, and your mind starts to drift away into an empty nothing. That doesn’t get much better when you stack days and days of that in a row on tour, playing in front of thousands for brief, shining moments, and then returning to seclusion at the wheel of a tour van. It seems to have worn particularly on Samuel T. Herring. After Singles (and, let’s face it, Letterman) launched Future Islands to the indie stratosphere, Herring found himself on that constantly unwinding highway, and the open road anxiety started weighing heavy. But then the other thing about perpetually driving is that you’re always rolling away from somewhere and something, a fact that Herring knows well and something that powers Future Islands’ new album, The Far Field.

Though Singles was their turning point in terms of massive recognition, this record has a lot more to do with their 2010 effort, In Evening Air. That album shares a title with a poem by Theodore Roethke, uses a painting by former band member Kymia Nawabi for its cover, and was fueled by Herring’s heartbreak after a long-term relationship ended over the strain of the touring life. The Far Field, meanwhile, takes it title from the Roethke collection that poem comes from, its cover was painted by Nawabi, and yet again Herring deals with heartbreak and the tolls of constant touring. In fact, at times it would seem it’s the same heartbreak still dogging him, which gives that much more power to the feeling of constant, taut-nerved movement that Future Islands produce here.

“Left out on the road eight years ago/ And you left too, but I never really thought that you would really go,” he begins on ‘Beauty of the Road’. The timeline is clear, the narrative bare. Later, he shows what’s been happening since that second album: “For years now, I’ve been hunting you down.” The attempts at reconnection flash in and out between more pain and anxiety, the lonely days and nights grinding away. ‘Ran’ again repeats the trend of movement away, in title and lyrics. “I can’t take this world without, this world without you … On these roads, out of love, so it goes,” Herring booms. Later, he’s still running on the buoyant ‘North Star’, though this time seemingly toward something, rather than running away: “Kept me running, from the world, and from myself/ You gave me second chance and hopes to run to/ I couldn’t bare to spend another day without you.”

That song, tellingly, details the story of Herring being unable to fly to see his love, so instead driving through a blizzard. In an unexpected and clever twist, the band juxtaposes that crushing feeling with near tropical synths and bouncing rhythm. It’s a breath of fresh air musically, distinct from its surroundings, but yet so perfectly in line thematically. The mystic ‘Black Rose’, meanwhile, was written on a long drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains as Herring traveled to visit his brother. One way or another, driving and motion are the forces behind the entire record, appropriate for the follow-up to an album that led the band to massive success but also hundreds of dates touring in support of it.

Musically, most of these songs work toward a similar loping tempo; listening to the album song after song begins to feel like that constant motion that propels and entangles Herring. The moments of catharsis and change pop up like roadside attractions between the miles of scenery out the window. As he does throughout the band’s catalog, Herring returns again and again to images of nature, to poetic lines through which he can manipulate his voice to achieve the greatest emotional resonance, whether that’s a Waits-ian growl or a Tom Jones falsetto. Gerritt Welmers and William Cashion build sturdy platforms, synthpop tunes hued in purple and red, ebbing and flowing like the ocean tide.

Throughout the album, Herring repeats words and phrases, but none pops up as frequently as “you.” Sometimes that person buoys him, gives him something to be moving towards, but more frequently he seems to fret over the fact that all this moving is drawing him further away. Some of the most emotionally fraught moments come, though, when the distance overtakes the “you” entirely, chief among them ‘Through the Roses’. The song plays out like a musical suicide note, Herring fighting the temptation to “look inside my wrist.” He tragically discusses “the clutch of nothing/ the curse of wanting.” And, at the song’s apex, the howling, growling, and poetic imagery all fall away, Herring just repeating how scared he is.

The problem with general anxiety, depression, and road trips is that they often stretch on for ages without any specific moment of impact, the hours stretching on with dwindling hope for light at the end of the road. But if you’re going to be stuck driving, Future Islands at least know well to make the pace entertaining. The songs do roll by at a largely consistent tempo, but Welmers and Cashion have a tried and tested formula for propulsive electropop that though not always groundbreaking never fails. It’s telling that they so perfectly fit Debbie Harry into ‘Shadows’, the tight drum pattern and glistening synths leaving perfect room for her trademark arch and growl.

Though Harry interlocks so dynamically into that song, she far overshadows Herring, primarily because of what a change of pace she provides. The Far Field – and the band’s entire catalog, really – forces the frontman to relive terrible moments of his life through funky grooves and wobbly-kneed dance moves. That’s a fascinating formula, but the wonder and shock of his howl and sigh fades some repeated this frequently That’s true too of that musical formula; the record’s 12 songs feels like a few too many, with ‘Black Rose’, ‘Day Glow Fire’, and ‘Aladdin’ fading into obscurity. They’re fine songs, well composed, but lack any sort of catharsis or viable differentiation, and blur into an amalgamation of “Future Islands song” synth fuzz.

But even through these murkiest times, all is not lost. After the bleakest moments of ‘Through the Roses’, he finds solace in a repeated message: “We can pull through together.” In interviews, he’s explained that the “we” includes the audience, and the fact that he’s found communion with a larger presence rather than the “you” that has so troubled him is powerful. Though there’s plenty of desperation and fear, Herring does show some real hope and positivity at times. Sometimes that comes from a presumed reunion with the love he’s been away from for so long, no matter how brief that may be. But it’s also in taking on a new direction for his constant movement. “First steps to being better is doing the smallest things,” he sings on ‘Ancient Water’.

The album rolls at a constant low boil, the agitation poking and prodding under the skin, not unlike the lingering, uncertain love. The Far Field isn’t explosive in its emotion, nor is it wallowing; it’s just constantly rolling forward, the wheels propelling Future Islands onward to the horizon. That all plays out perfectly on ‘Cave’, a song that opens with Welmer’s bronzey synths and Cashion’s rubbery bass and never looks back. “Is this a desperate wish for dying/ Or a wish that dying cease?/ The fear that keeps me going and going/ Is the same fear that brings me to my knees,” Herring sings. And, in the world of Future Islands, that duality is crucial. Herring and co. know that there is no light without dark, especially as they keep driving through the hazy sunlight somewhere between setting and rising.