Something of a retreat, a withdrawal into the melancholy of the bedrock of the group’s howled longing.
Future Islands was bound to have a difficult time following up their third LP. Singles was so great that even its title lent credence to the notion that a neophyte could be convinced that the album was in fact a greatest hits compilation, and its anthemic swell came closer than any previous record to capturing the band’s mercurial live spirit in the studio. Instead of following up the massive sound of that record, however, The Far Field marks something of a retreat, a withdrawal deep into the melancholy that provides the bedrock of the group’s howled longing.
First single “Ran” opens with the band’s New Order-esque balance of shimmering synth melodies underpinned by brittle, driving basslines and skittering hi-hat and snare patterns. A track more in line with the propulsive rhythms and soaring nature of Singles, “Ran” finds its true drive, as ever, in the unpredictable moans and growls of Samuel T. Herring, which lurch from soothing, plaintive croons into furious, anguished grunts and hisses without warning. But “Cave” fits more in line with the glacial, insular quality that lives at the margins of Future Islands, an entropic composition in which Gerrit Welmers’s moaning bleats of synth swallow Herring as he reaches the chorus, preventing the catharsis of his unleashed sorrow by making him sound trapped and forgotten.
These two songs form the twin poles of Future Islands’ sound, but instead of playing around in the space between them, the rest of the album largely attempts to embody both aspects at once. Opener “Aladdin” gently opens with a brittle bassline and faintly chiming synths that mutes the bouncing arrangement, dulling Herring to a wan croon that sounds timid and exploring. “Time on Her Side” hedges closer to the poppier side of things, with Herring making his patented subject matter of rejection and heartbreak as multiple synth lines converge and crest toward the climax. Yet even this track lacks the fire of Herring’s wandering soul, and for the first time he sounds as if he’s singing to guide a live sing-along and not to air his desires.
Curiously, the band follows up its punchiest, most expressive album with its most reserved. “Through the Roses” builds from a lumbering bassline into a modestly faster number that lacks the passion of its lyrics, which search for unity against natural tendencies toward introverted seclusion. There are no dynamics here, so that when Herring sings “In the weak of my soul/ The temptation to look inside my wrist, it grows/ The cut is waiting,” no sense of urgency underpins such an unvarnished confession. Elsewhere, the band pulls focus in more compelling ways, as on “Shadows,” which boasts a guest slot of Debbie Harry gamely singing backup for Herring as he renders his lovelorn grievances in Dantean terms. If Herring sings from the Inferno, Harry beams down from, well, not paradise, perhaps, but at least purgatory. Her classic, detached cooing sounds imperial in this setting, at once a guide for Herring’s lost soul and merely a more experienced peer in the art of displacement. The percolating misery of “Candles” likewise marks a highpoint of the record, with a surprisingly enjoyable sludge reggae vibe as Herring slinks over each line, drawing out every syllable as he commiserates with another lonely heart.
Occasionally, the band even perks up in a show of their fragile yet propulsive kind of pop. “Ancient Water” contains simplistic messages of optimism like “First steps to being better is doing the smallest things,” but the genuine warmth in Herring’s voice permeates the track, thawing the cold snap of the bassline and floating the synths into dancing patterns. The band’s wistfulness is an underrated aspect of its sound, and it shines on the song, and even more so on “Day Glow Fire.” Nothing more or less than a reminiscence of a particularly nice camping trip, “Day Glow Fire” is the sleeper hit of the album, and one that suggests that an invigorated, successful Future Islands is capable of addressing a certain sense of contentment without losing sight of its core self. On an album that struggles for so long to get out of first gear, the song amply demonstrates what a curious, unplaceable group Future Islands is, and how much more potential they have to stretch and grow in the wake of its success.