Future Islands: On the Water


Future Islands have made their name by delivering the kind of “blood, sweat, and tears” live show that can inspire legions of fans to blindly follow the band across the miles.  The members don’t look like your typical indie-rock darlings; instead they resemble the type of guys in the cubicle next to yours who you depend on for a daily dose of levity or to complete a fantasy football trade.  Looks are often misleading though, and to witness frontman Samuel Herring close his eyes, throw his head back in reverie and then violently kick his emoting into high gear is a sight to behold and proves the old adage about never judging a book by its cover.  However, Future Islands’ live bombast always outshone their recorded output.  It was difficult to really get into one of their albums because frankly, without the accompanying visuals of the band going nuts in a crowded, sweaty club, much of the emotion tended to get lost and buried.  A more subdued recorded version of the band was okay, but it could err towards the side of caution. 

With On The Water, there is again nothing that immediately jumps out and demands attention.  Newcomers, in fact, may again be fooled into thinking that there are two sides to the band: a furious live assemblage and a quieter, gentler studio pack.  However, like a lot of 2011 releases, namely Radiohead’s The King of Limbs and TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light, this album is a slow-burner.  It’s a headphones record that hearkens back to the days when albums were meant to be listened to conceptually as a whole.  The songs are dialed back a bit, with the themes of personal discovery, maturation, and resiliency taking center stage in the thematic process: “We set out to find something to hold/When seeking truth the answer is the road/When seeking wisdom the journey is your hope/Fight through the wind, fight through the rain, fight through the cold ”, Herring intones on album highlight “Give Us The Wind”, a song that is strategically placed in the middle of a song cycle that resembles a  journey in itself.  At the start, the album’s narrator appears frustrated with his current state of affairs and listeners find him begging and pleading with the cosmos for the chance to make up for lost opportunities, failures, and regrets.    As things progress, he begins taking the steps to rectify the malaise and perhaps begins to reinvent himself.  By the end of the album, he has committed himself to the process and is preparing for that new start: “And you can go to the moon/But if you want something to change/You got to change your life”.  Whether it’s a job, a relationship, or something far less committed, Herring’s words are correct: it does take time to make things better, and the answers are found along the way by trial and error.  On The Water plays these challenges out like a short story, following the classic plot devices until a somewhat tidy conclusion wraps up the narrative.  Always the entertainers, Future Islands envelopes this story in a blanket of New Order-like synths, Bowie swagger, and Cure-like magnetism.  You can crank up the volume and dance a bit while following along. 

In taking the literary comparisons even further, one can look at the title and find a great deal of symbolism.  Water is purifying, offering the necessary components to replenish, invigorate, and sustain life.  It’s no stretch then to understand the connection between the songs’ messages and the album’s name.  To perhaps make things clearer, the ambient sound of waves are scattered throughout the album, providing introductions and bookends to the narrator’s steps on the journey, before he finally ends up at “Tybee Island”, a beachfront destination point.   Furthermore, the band holed up in a studio in the quiet coastal town of Elizabeth City, North Carolina to record this album, making On The Water, an actual literal title.  

While this album may not bode well for the iPod shuffle, it is a satisfying and rewarding listen that will surely stand up as strongly years down the road as it does now.  Future Islands themselves are on a journey of discovery as their star is rising and more attention is being paid to their output.  Consider On The Water a mature and confident step on that journey into the upper echelon of the rock and roll hierarchy.   

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