by Matthew Levine
Baltimore’s three-piece synth pop outfit Future Islands’ newest release, “On the Water”, takes a sharp turn from their previous works. Known for their fast-paced electronic sounds on their first and second albums, the band swaps their style for a more ambient feel. Vocalist Samuel T. Herring strains his voice to its limit on every track, describing to the listener a collection of stories filled with love and loss, leaving one to reflect on his own life.
Inspired by the isolated recording studio of the waterfront house of Andrew S. Sander, the opening track, “On the Water,” introduces the listener to the water-inspired sounds that pervade the entirety of the album. While a blanket of calamity envelopes the listener’s ears, the entrance of Herring’s vocals breaks the peace, creating a contrast between the instrumental background and the vocalist. Inundating the opening song with emotional confusion, the listener now knows what to expect throughout the rest of the album.
Following “On the Water” is the awkwardly placed “Before the Bridge.” Deceiving the listener into a state of relaxation with a moderate tempo and woodblock beat, layers of synth and Herring’s strained vocals come crashing down. A tempest of emotional chaos, the song serves as the focal point of the album, bringing hairs to full attention, the listener craving for a dramatic cool down. However, this relaxing digression lasts the rest of the album, leaving oneself with frustration and resentment for the misleading placement of “Before the Bridge”.
Standing out lyrically among the rest of the tracks is “Balance.” While many of the tracks feature lyrics of confusion and depression, “Balance” seems to have a more optimistic approach towards the album’s concept. Relying on personal experience, Herring emphasizes the necessity to persevere. Affirming everything: “Just takes time/A little trust and your time,” the vocals offer a positive outlook.
Bringing an end to the long, emotional journey is “Grease”. Compiled with slow, mellow guitar strums and rippling synth loops, the song proves itself as the ultimate point of reflection, its lyrics asking: “What happens to you?/What happened to truth?/What happened to me?/This song won’t change a thing.” Although ending with a negative taste in one’s mouth, the listener has been inundated with the album’s melancholy. Warning that time gets the best of everyone, Future Islands leave the listener with a message of carpe diem.
Although the slow, ambient feel and minimalistic arrangements are not necessarily choice selections for Future Islands, “On the Water” is necessary for the psychological progress of the band. Had they continued with themes similar to that of their previous works, focusing on more upbeat sounds, the shelf life of this band would have decreased dramatically. Until they return to the studio with their next emotional conflict, “On the Water”’s bridge of confusion will suffice.
Matthew Levine is a contributing writer. Email him at email@example.com