Behind the hype, Future Islands offer pop catharsis
Baltimore’s Future Islands have had an interesting trajectory. Formed in 2006, they seemed a band with a strong but somewhat marginal appeal, melding together arch, retro synth-pop backing with unhinged performances from frontman Samuel Herring. But something about the combination, especially seen live on the stage, forged ardent, obsessive fans from people who’d been confused onlookers when the show began.
The band knew it, and toured relentlessly from 2009 onwards, often playing ten or more gigs a month, all over the US and Europe. It was hardworking strategy that earned them a sizable international reputation, and eventually, a spot on the David Letterman show. Herring’s debut TV performance was characteristically captivating, and immediately went viral, exploding the band into the popular consciousness. The YouTube comments ranged from hilarity to confusion to fascination, with people not knowing quite what they were looking at – just that they liked looking at it. It currently has 2.8 million views.
It’s telling that, since first seeing them play to maybe 50 people back in 2009, I still struggle to put my finger on exactly what it is about Future Islands that’s so compelling. There is, of course, the songs – catchy, bright synth-pop with clean, twangy bass and driving rhythms – but it’s Herring that puts them into another league. First of all, there’s his deep, resonant voice, alternating between soul screeches, desperate crooning and death-metal roars – a challenging car-wreck of intensities. Then there’s the dancing, whether the now-famous crablike foot-to-foot disco moves, or his full-body writhes that make Elvis’s twitching hips look like the foxtrot.
But it’s something in his demeanor, and his delivery, that really touches a raw nerve. He stares over the heads of the crowd like Hamlet seeing Banquo; as if the back of the room is lined by the ghosts of past relationships. He claws at his clothes, at his hair, at his face. He throws himself around the stage as if he’s trying to break through the walls of a cell. His face is constantly etched with a deep emotional pain that seems earnest, no matter how theatrical the mode of expression. Through a combination of all these sounds, actions and nuances, he taps into a kind of harrowing, heartbroken desperation that we’ve all felt at some point, and vents it through his performance.
Herring’s running of this emotional gauntlet culminates in a kind of group catharsis, with people in the audience swaying with their eyes closed, dancing, laughing, crying. And who can ask more of any musician than that?
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