A near-constant theme on the latest album from Baltimore synth-pop band Future Islands is distance.
Frontman Samuel Herring sings of running "round the wailing world" on first single, "Ran." Later, there's a tearful goodbye to family on "Through the Roses," in which the singer instructs, "Don't watch me leaving, I'll be gone." Even the title — "The Far Field," released Friday — sounds like a reference to something out of reach.
The preoccupation makes sense, given Future Islands' raised public profile in the aftermath of meme-dom.
Three years ago, the band's unforgettable debut performance on live TV floored host David Letterman, in large part because of Herring's limber dance moves and chest-pounding delivery. The online clip of "Seasons (Waiting on You)" was widely shared, and suddenly, Future Islands had a hit single and a much busier touring schedule. Though they stopped touring in support of that album ("Singles") in late 2015, Herring told The New York Times recently the group could still be on that tour cycle now if they wanted.
Some would call it overnight success, but the local fanbase and longtime followers know this is a band that developed its charming, earnest sound through years of relentless touring and writing. "Singles" was a heartwarming case of hard work — without ill-fitting concessions to the mainstream — paying off.
More subdued and meditative than its predecessor, "The Far Field," Future Islands' fifth studio album, sounds like a band exhaling after that unexpected rise and the long stretches of touring that came with it.
The core sound — hummable, vulnerable pop songs informed by '80s British new wave — remains the same here. Bassist William Cashion's busy basslines glide all over the neck (displayed best on single "Cave"), while Gerrit Welmers' keyboards create lush canvases that Herring bleeds all over with heart-on-sleeve vocals. Often, the latter's perspective is in search for something — a person, a place, a feeling.
"And for years now, I been hunting you down / Trying to find out your hiding place," Herring sings on "Beauty of the Road."
The knock on Future Islands is often the band's familiarity. With a core of only bass, keyboards and vocals, there are limits to their sound — self-imposed, but limits nonetheless. Yet, with workman-like precision, they continue to mine their well-established sonic palette, with subtle yet rewarding results.
Those tweaks include live drums for the first time on the record (played by touring drummer and ex-Lake Trout member Michael Lowry), along with string and brass arrangements from Patrick McMinn (both are Baltimoreans). Standouts like the propulsive and giddy "North Star"; the Debbie Harry duet "Shadows"; and "Candles," a lighters-in-the-air ballad, show the band is still tapping into growth.
While "Seasons" could prove to be Future Islands' only crossover hit, "The Far Field" is the endearing and often-gorgeous proof that the story continues — whether or not the spotlight is on.
"The Far Field"
Rating: ✭✭✭ 1/2 (out of ✭✭✭✭)