The status of “next big thing” is a coveted position, and most bands never get there. Future Islands have been there three times, with three consecutive albums. But where the previous Thrill Jockey releases, In Evening Air and On the Water, were able to nab strong reviews and cult audiences, bolstered by the group’s kinetic performances, the Baltimore by way of North Carolina outfit never quite broke out in a way that deserves that kind of superlatives being lobbed in its direction.
Singles, the audaciously titled fourth LP from Future Islands, is upfront about its ambitions, beginning with the strongest stand-alone the band has made yet. “Seasons (Waiting on You)” sees a universal experience portrayed with respect for the human condition, and Samuel Herring showcases an even-handed distribution of youthful longing and frustration with mature wisdom and perspective. Herring’s deep, husky and often untamable delivery peppers this spread with personality, sounding like an only son of Dracula raised in an ‘80s disco.
This dancehall offers as many tears as it does smiles, and Herring’s complexities and emotional fragility make the experience worth having. On “Fall from Grace,” the listener easily can be lost in which of the polar choices is the appropriate reaction when Herring explodes into a sudden false chord scream that shows his metal roots. It is both awesome and unabashedly goofy. Future Islands’ live presentation is all about going for it, flailing without self-consciousness, dancing without worry, being fully in the moment. So, in that sense, the scream is very much what the band is about. But, on record, outside that atmosphere, it doesn’t fit unless you know the band through performance.
Future Islands are direct in their influences, with ‘80s pop music and contemporary synth-pop both pretty obvious touchstones. But trying to pinpoint the sound of the band ignores the originality that is at play. No one sounds like Future Islands, nor have they for several albums. The nostalgic chill wave about five years past fashionable can be heard popping up on “A Song for Our Grandfathers,” letting synths polarize clean and dirty into a swirl of sonic bliss. Rounding out the collection are a few filler moments and the rather grating, overzealous “Doves.” Thus Singles still is not the classic it wants to be. And as easy as it is to enjoy, there is something fleeting in its pleasures, as if it isn’t quite complete without occupying the same spaces as the band. Maybe they are a band whose breakthrough isn’t possible on album but will be found in relentless touring. Or maybe the fourth time will be the charm.