Future Islands frontman Samuel Herring has the kind of idiosyncratic singing voice one doesn’t forget very easily. It’s a bold and theatrical wonder, able to effortlessly leap between suave croon and full-throated gargle. He doesn’t treat his microphone with aloofness or fear, but rather embraces it, delivering his vocals with the kind of passion and intensity of which more indie rock singers would do well to mimic. In a field of effects-obscured shyness, erratic yelps and just plain shakiness, Herring’s vocals are the real deal, so much that they frequently threaten to steal the show. But the Baltimore-based band’s synth-pop provides a strong and melodically brilliant foil to their leader’s mesmerizing histrionics, adding up to a powerful combination that’s much more satisfying in practice than it ever could seem on paper.
When song come as sentimental and heartbroken as Future Islands’ do on third album On the Water, however, a voice like Herring’s is a necessity. Where a Ben Gibbard might do so with a mopey everyday melancholy, Herring wrenches the hurt from his very soul, to the point that every missed phone call is a tragedy, every cocktail is a plunge into darkest waters, and every memory is just another picked-over scar. And a song need not even require Herring’s deepest yawps to make that case, either; nowhere on On the Water does he seem so wounded as he does on “Where I Found You.” Throughout the nearly six minutes of dreamy, subdued dream-pop, Herring holds on to his memories with a crippling death grip, repeating the refrain, “Look back… look back” before delivering his most poignant, gut-wrencher of a line: “I loved you… and I still do.”
To classify On the Water as an exercise in masochism or self-defeat would be a mistake, however. For as much pain comes through Herring’s words, his passion only intensifies the band’s stunning new wave arrangements. When he asks “Do you believe in love?” on the soaring, dance-heavy “Before the Bridge,” he sounds doubtful, yet hopeful at the same time. On “The Great Fire,” he finds an equally dramatic vocal counterpart in Jenn Wasner, of fellow Baltimore outfit Wye Oak. At times, Wasner’s vocals even overshadow Herring’s relatively subdued delivery, but their harmonization during the chorus is a transcendent convergence. Herring even sounds positively triumphant on “Give Us the Wind,” crooning “We don’t want your blessing” over a romantically melancholy swell of synthesizer. And on “Close to None,” a six-minute epic that slowly evolves into the album’s biggest and most urgent highlight, Herring’s declaration “I’ve been waiting for the sun” may very well signify a yearning to escape depression, but the irresistible rhythms suggest the sun may have arrived after all.
As fun and frequently gorgeous as Future Islands’ songs are, Herring’s vocals may very well take a little getting used to. I’ll readily admit that it took me a few listens. But Future Islands’ dramatic and impassioned synth-pop grows from curious to awe-inspiring surprisingly quickly. Emotional resonance and extravagant flair don’t always mix well with such ease, but Future Islands yield a striking balance.