"Nice going! How about that? I'll take all of that you got. Future Islands! That was wonderful!"
That's David Letterman, who never really gets excited about anything anymore, praising Future Islands earlier this month, after the longtime local favorites made their national television debut on The Late Show, performing "Seasons (Waiting on You)" from their latest album, Singles, which comes out this Tuesday, March 25.
The Baltimore by way of Greenville, N.C. trio has always seemed as if they were bigger than the rock clubs, performance spaces, and basement shows upon which they built their name. But on Letterman they suddenly seemed too small, delightfully unaffected. Their eccentricities, particularly frontman Sam Herring's unabashed willingness to just go for it, made them stand out and helped turn the group into a buzz band, and weirdly enough, an internet meme, literally overnight.
Footage of Herring's dance moves-a contorted, Pentecostal take on "The Twist" with a few Masterpiece Theatre-style grand gestures thrown in there too-interrupted the next night's show whenever Dave exclaimed, "Lets dance!" GIFs of Herring dancing with a #Letterman stamp were passed around Tumblr. Last week, when Future Islands played a steady stream of South by Southwest showcases, they became "the band" to experience in the flesh. NPR's music blog All Songs Considered presented a slow-motion version of Herring, "so you can catch every undulation."
Although post-Letterman is undoubtedly a plateau-jump of visibility for the group, since 2010's In Evening Air Future Islands' profile has been steadily rising. Shows have consistently gotten bigger and rowdier, and their albums more focused. They played 2012's Virgin Free Fest armed with devastating tracks from 2011's rummy breakup album, On the Water. And at February's Floristree show, nearly a month before Letterman, something felt different already. A clear tension between "old" fans and "new" fans was noticeable.
There were people there that just didn't get it: They brought glass bottles of beer to Floristree and kept disposing of them on the floor. A contingent of bros chanted "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" as the rest of the crowd clapped and stomped for an encore, and whether that was ironic or not, it was pretty horrifying. When you get big enough, some naive dickheads who don't know no better start coming to your shows (meanwhile, old-head fans waste time demonizing said dickheads), and the indie-rock media at large will try and treat your brilliant, super-sincere frontman as a spectacle because, you know, pageviews.
Singles-Future Islands' first for legendary indie label 4AD (In Evening Air and On the Water arrived via Thrill Jockey)-won't let simplistic, meme-grabbing celebrations of this complicated band stick for long, though. Their fourth album may have a title that suggests ambitious, all-hits, no-bullshit pop appeal and, indeed, opening track "Seasons" begins with what certainly sounds like homage to Underworld's anthemic "Born Slippy." But that song and the album as a whole is part of Future Islands' nearly decade-long tradition of forward-moving, inward-gazing, bittersweet reminiscences. Perverse dancefloor numbers are what this group does best, and Singles is the most focused collection they've put together.
If previous Future Islands records seem soaked in melancholy, Singles feels hesitantly positive. There's more of an oomph to (relatively) slow jams like the aspirant "Doves" and Talk Talk-esque "Like the Moon" than in the past. William Cashion's bass-playing gets legitimately funky at times, and Gerrit Welmers' synths and drum programming regally propel songs along. Herring's vocals are more restrained though occasionally punctuated by a new sort of performative howl. "Fall from Grace" features screaming like that of the black-metal band Emperor-Herring's most haunting on-record performance since the climatic Tom Waits-gone-gremlin growl of In Evening Air's "Long Flight."
Singles' most poignant song and, therefore, its best is "A Song for Our Grandfathers," a weighty drone-pop track that captures the sad-happy feelings of thinking hard about the family that raised you to be the wonderful screw-up you are. ". . . Those old eyes watching me/ And I feel safe/ Grandfather watching over me" are heartening lines that stick out, but before you know it, Herring's pontificating on about "fallow fields," the abyss staring back at you, and repeating "I feel sad," as the song floats away. Christ, man.
And so, Singles is as heavy-hearted as it is a fist-pumping good time, and in that sense, it's just another Future Islands album. However, it's getting harder to differentiate the crowdsurf-friendly bangers from the Herring-on-the-stage-heavily-heaving-and-sobbing moments of pause, and that's a good thing. This is a complicated and knotty listening experience that'll make you dance and make you cry. For longtime fans, that's comforting and exciting still. For all of the new fans the band's picking up, Singles should be a touching, challenging introduction to a very special band about to receive a whole lot of attention.