For their sixth album, As Long As You Are, indie synth-pop royal Future Islands opted for an unexpected tranquil image of a house in the middle of a lake. A closer examination reveals something almost Dali-esque and surreal. The home is not a boat house, yet it seems to be riding a gentle wave – but to where? These subtle “Easter eggs” in their artwork and videos offer some insights. While the band may be best known for reviving ’80s synth-pop, their music and stories are more intricate than they first seem. As Long As You Are is no different.
Whereas some albums have individual songs that can stand alone, As Long As You Are should be heard in its entirety to fully appreciate the Baltimore quartet’s artistic craft. It is a concept album that reflects the times, where loneliness and separation, loss and discovery, and dreams and reality simultaneously collide. But are Samuel T. Herring, William Cashion, Gerrit Welmers, and Mike Lowry successful in articulating their vision? Have they built upon their previous outstanding albums like Singles and The Far Field? We share our first impressions on the record and attempt to answer those questions.
Future Islands have been a powerful force in indie music for years, gaining notable acclaim with their breakout Singles in 2014. Their sound is defined by rumbling, immensely danceable grooves, spacy synths and guitar, and a frontman with enough energy to dance away everyone’s pain for a few minutes. They exude positive energy that says that even in the toughest times, that we’ll move on, we’ll get better, and we’ll keep fighting. They are the perfect band to counteract the darkness of 2020.
Right from its opener, “Glada”, it’s obvious that Future Islands have not strayed too far from what made them such a special band. Lush synths and Samuel Herring’s voice provide some deep soul soothing. “For Sure” ramps it up and gives us the full Future Islands experience. It’s easy to imagine Herring grooving hard on stage to this one. “Born in a War” gives the record a bit of an edge, both lyrically and in its tone.
The most moving moments on the album are when everything slows down a bit. “I Knew You” and “City’s Face” are a beautiful tandem that break up the middle of the record. “City’s Face” features a relatable ode to a changing hometown that’s become unrecognizable. “It’s so strange how a person can change a city’s face / All the strangers I came to know, they’re all strange now.”
There are some more upbeat numbers as well. “Waking”, “The Painter”, “Plastic Beach” all hit that Future Islands sweet spot. They’re great tracks, though they don’t necessarily push the band’s sound in a new direction. But to be honest, it’s really nice to feel like you’re listening to something familiar in these times of uncertainty. And once again, the lyricism happens to hit right on the head, and that’s where the band has grown most. “Thrill” is one of the most impactful songs by any band this year. It’s such a heartfelt tune about addiction and overcoming it.
As Long As You Are is a powerful work of art. Lyrically, Future Islands are at their best, painting vivid pictures for listeners to get lost in, to relate to, to cry, and to dance to. And while they don’t push their sound too far out of their wheelhouse, in a year of instability, it feels good to once again be in the recognizable warmth that Future Islands provides.
You know from the cover art that these songs on As Long As Your Are will take you on a journey. Samuel Herring’s vocals on the opener, “Glada”, set the tone for the album: more subdued and unhurried. That languid fog is soon dissipated by the vibrance of the next track. “For Sure” appeases fans of their more uptempo fare. But even this one keeps a safe distance from the sheer exuberance of Singles. You sense the band is holding back, though the reason is not immediately evident.
The album’s midpoint downshifts with the introspective “I Knew You” and “City’s Face” until the tempo again picks up on “Plastic Beach.” This song offers the best explanation for the album’s maturity: “You came along and showed me who I am / You’re my beautiful / You’re my heart.” These are the lyrics of a man whose heart is full. He is basking in the comforting glow of a stable relationship, so naturally that emotional contentment is reflected in the lyrics and music.
“A person can change” he sings on “City’s Face” – so, too, can a band. Future Islands have spent years preparing for this album. The eager, synth-heavy dance numbers of their past are the mellower, synth-enhanced swaying tunes of the present. They aren’t trying to break new ground. They don’t need to. Now they can simply cruise upon the blue waters of their success. This album may have fewer danceable ports of call, but not all journeys need a destination. Sometimes the simplest rewards come from soaking up the scenery. As Long As You Are provides plenty.
Future Islands have moved listeners for nearly a decade-and-a-half, but it hasn’t just been physically. Frontman Sam Herring’s stories and messages are vivid, imaginative, and moving. There is a purpose to everything the band does. As such, although As Long As You Are stays within the band’s trademark, epic synth-pop style, each song feels refreshing and new. The quartet go the extra mile here: they’ve crafted a concept album where each song is linked together to tell a grand tale of loss and discovery, of sacrifice and redemption. They’ve crafted a record that defines 2020.
The LP is full of juxtaposition, as each song has a flip side. Where the delicate and intimate “City’s Face” is a goodbye to one’s no-longer-recognizable hometown, the shimmering “Waking” is the start of a new chapter. The gentle, languid opener “Glada” is filled with memory and gratitude for one’s friendship, and the friendship is reciprocated on the euphoric “For Sure”, which is one of the LP’s standout tracks.
The solemn and stunning “The Painter” and the gradually energizing “Plastic Beach” take the contrast further. The former tells of a person seeking answers in the wonders of the world, while the latter is a look in the mirror to see how family has formed one’s well-being. ‘You’re my beautiful / And you’re beautiful just this way,'” Herring sings to his loved one.
Two songs best exemplify the band’s artistic achievement. “Moonlight” finds the band pondering the importance of love and why it is even more important now to hold onto each other. As a stunning Peter Hook-like bass line throbs, Herring sings, “Here’s my heart / Don’t break it.” But as endearing this song is, the soul-jarring “Thrill” is its antithesis. It is the sound of emptiness and unrecoverable loss. It is Future Islands at their finest, crafting a stripped-back song that still buckles your knees. Through the mournful soundscape, Herring’s voice is even more vulnerable, particularly as he sings:
“Seen it on the news
Some never seem to lose
They say, the rest are fallen
I seen it on the news
It wasn’t mine to lose
Do they hear me calling?”
Before the track ends, Herring encourages the old river running through him to “keep rising”, but through the flood he’ll persevere. He’ll stay afloat and move on, much like the house depicted on the album’s cover. And Future Islands have once again moved us in ways that go well beyond their swelling synth-pop aesthetics.
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