Can Future Islands survive without a crowd?

The Baltimore band’s sixth album, As Long As You Are, finds them longing for the thrill of a live audience in the Covid-19 age.

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Future Islands must be missing the road. In the decade from 2008, the Baltimore post-wave band barely came off tour: around the release of their fifth album, 2017’s The Far Field, they had played more than a thousand shows. And they played hard, with frontman Samuel T Herring, who wields no instruments or rarely even a mic stand, throwing himself around the stage, revelling in the thrill of performing to a room full of real-life, breathing bodies, and tearing a few ligaments along the way.

But gigs have been more or less non-existent since March, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. With the release of their sixth album As Long As You Are, Future Islands are playing into the unknown. When will Herring next cavort around a stage, squatting and belly-sliding before a roaring crowd? 

Recorded by the band in their hometown Baltimore, and co-produced by them for the first time, As Long As You Are finds Future Islands as full of pain and longing as fans have come to expect. It also finds the band growing: joining William Cashion and Gerrit Welmers, who write the music, and Herring, who then adds the lyrics, is drummer Mike Lowry, who has previously toured with the band but is only now secured as an official member and songwriter. It seems surprising that a drummer has not previously been a part of their formal line-up, so vital are the driving percussion lines that urge these songs on along with nostalgic synth melodies and Herring’s distinctive vocals.

That signature punk-rock growl – one of the most recognisable vocal styles in contemporary music – is thanks to a condition called Reinke’s edema, a swelling of the vocal folds caused by, among other things, talking too much and singing incorrectly. Herring, now 36, has decided to embrace rather than work to cure it, flaunting it as an audible symbol of the years he and his band spent fighting to be recognised, which came in 2014 with the release of fourth album Singles (2014) and a viral performance on The Late Show with David Letterman.

On “Glada”, the first track on As Long As You Are, Herring starts by speaking his narrative, rather than singing it. Still, his earthy growl is evident, eerie yet enthralling, bringing to mind Iggy Pop on the Good Time soundtrack. “And you came as you are/And they said, ‘Heaven’s a mystery, unless you’re a star’,” he says, grandiosely. It’s a pleasure to hear his speech slip into song as, little by little, short words and phrases slip into melodies, like they're escaping him. “Who am I?/Do I deserve the sea again?” he sings, properly this time, a line that rings with self-deprecation, despite the grandeur of its sound.

Much of As Long As You Are, as with previous Future Islands albums, runs forward at a pace that is sometimes stomach-churningly fast. In concert, with Herring lurching around and a crowd moving along in sync, that pace feels powerful; on record, that relentlessness can often sound drab. With each track keeping such a steady rhythm, the songs start to blur into one. Even a track as exciting as “Born In a War” – which has Herring froth at the mouth as he debates US gun control, the beat revving up around him – hardly stands out among track after track of propulsive music.

And strangely, the two tracks that do break up this otherwise unceasing momentum, “City’s Face” and “Thrill”, don’t hold any of the wonderful idiosyncrasies we hear elsewhere. With subtler instrumentation behind him, Herring flounders, his voice vulnerable without his flourishes.

The album’s best tracks are those that linger in the in-between – bold enough for Herring to feel comfortable working his voice to its extremes, but not so brash as to sound punishing. The stateliness of “I Knew You” feels cathartic, while “The Painter” bounces with a disco beat anchored by Herring’s melancholy. “What’s lost in the painting – in the crimson holes?/What’s under the shadows – that you made your own?” he asks, blissful synths leading his anxieties away and into the distance.

What will these songs become when Future Islands can play them live, as they were destined to be heard? There are a handful of lyrics on this record that will be screamed with fervour by fans. One finds its way on to the lead single “For Sure”, complete with swooning guitar and singalong chorus, on which Herring sings: “I will never keep you from an open door… I will never keep you from just who you are.” Of all the declarations of love in this world, it’s a freeing one. 

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s culture assistant.

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