The hardest working band in electronic pop have moved to 4AD for their fourth album of delicately skewed and melodically-crushing heartbreak. Superficially, Singles carries on the Baltimore trio’s business of creating crafted, if slightly unsettling vignettes of loves lost, unrequited or simply illusory. The likes of ‘Tinman’ (from breakthrough second album In Evening Air) frantically pulsed with a combination of galloping bass and simmering synth washes and –most importantly – the astonishing voice of one Sam Herring. Herring’s half strangled, affected and utterly effecting throaty laments leant those songs a kind of raw, unnerving authenticity that made you believe he really was dancing with tears in his eyes (and you should see him dance). For Singles, that impressive instrument has been reigned in somewhat to allow for more conventional emoting. Similarly, the music has been somewhat refined; with spluttering sonic desperation replaced with a stately and somewhat glacial sonic veneer.
This is perhaps what producer Chris Coady (Beach House, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear) was drafted in for, and what it leaves us with is a Future Islands more firmly focused on the straight emotive pop dollar. The opening track, and single ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’ is as compelling a purple pop rush as you’re likely to hear this year, “People change, but you know some people never do” is classic Herring – living in romantic denial, although truly knowing he’s lost before the relationship’s even begun. And that’s before the wind-tunnel of a chorus strips away your top layer of skin, leaving you as exhilaratingly devastated as Herring’s character is. The thing is, it’s also a rather polished take on previous glories, with the sonically bumpy bits sandblasted and the murky mixes of old now separated and sparkling. It’s difficult to explain why that’s a bad thing exactly – it’s just that Future Islands’ darkest moments of murk and grit was where their imperfect pearls were often forged.
Sam Herring’s voice remains an astonishing, distinctive instrument, but the former guttural howls that pervaded and infected the aforementioned murky corners of In Evening Air and On the Water created the sense that one was listening to a coherent document, an over-arching narrative – whereas this is defiantly a distinct collection of songs, just as the album title implies. ‘A Song for our Grandfathers’ starts out like early Human League but quickly turns into a kind of sentimental soft-rock ballad. It’s not bad per se, but you wonder what the Future Islands of old would have made of the shameless nostalgia at play here.
Singles is obviously the band’s stab at taking it to what’s commonly known as “the next level”. The miracle may be that they’ve still managed to make a good album in spite of all the attendant upheavals that entertaining accessibility entails. And even cleaned up, Future Island’s beguiling musical planet always rewards a visit, and Singles has its fair share of fist-in-the-air anthems of tattered despair. ‘Fall From Grace’ for example is a dazzling, achingly measured howl of a thing, with Herring actually screaming incoherently towards the end, finally breaking free of the tethering syncopation of the relentlessly slow beat. But where once they were miles ahead of the competition, they seem to be happy enough to run alongside the pack now. Singles is a great album, just not necessarily a great Future Islands album. Joe Nawaz