When describing Future Islands their recently retired, tongue-in-cheek Twitter bio put it best: “Too noisy for new wave, too pussy for punk.” Their distinctive formula has changed relatively little over the years, and The Far Field continues to weave Gerrit Welmer’s deft synth atmospheres and William Cashion’s bass groove spine into the perfect backdrop for Samuel T. Herring’s ever-exhilarating rants and raves.
An ode to the road, restless nomadism permeates their fifth full-length, the title of which even implies a promised land beyond. You can hear the drone of a jet engine, the pound of footsteps, and the angst of a heart beating all twisted into The Far Field's melodic pulse and swirl. Over 1000 shows deep into relentless touring and coming off of the peak of their popularity, Future Islands are exhausted, but they maintain a spritely rhythm despite this.
If anything The Far Field is guilty only of leaving the rougher edges on the cutting room floor. Perhaps the awareness of now larger audiences or even weary self-preservation softened the throaty metal growls found in past songs like “Fall From Grace” (At a gig I attended post-Singles Herring joked he had just begun to see a vocal coach for the first time and that said coach was concerned), though they are of course still sprinkled throughout the live show. In fact, though you won’t find quite a “Long Flight” or “Tin Man” level climax recorded here, you get the feeling these songs were almost made as teasers for their now famous performances; You can practically feel the vein-bursting screams in “Aladdin,” visualize the sultry hip swaying in delicious slow jam “Candles,” and taste the sweat in “Cave.”
The passion and drive is still there, but the “Spirit”-esque hooks are left behind as well; Future Islands have earned your attention, now here is what they have to say. Perhaps the most vulnerable moment of The Far Field is “Through The Roses,” with Herring juxtaposing internal anxiety with the rose-colored perception of the star on a stage who is, after all, still human, though not easily so. “And you see me through the roses / Through the lights and the smoke and the screen / I’m no one better / I’m no better than you / And I’m scared,“ he reveals. Despite the chest-beating confidence he can exude and the success that it's found, you believe him.
Though “It’s not easy just being human” seems obvious, many do lose sight of the delicate humanity in entertainers, especially one whose stocky frame and soulful evocations can at times seem larger than life. There is a selfish voyeurism afforded the listener - one can marvel at Herring as he mimes ripping his own heart out or tearing a mask off his melting face, but when the lights come on you go home. For Herring and Future Islands home still remains just that, a Far Field somewhere down the line.
Restlessness electrifies this album in a way deeper than to simply say the grass is always greener. “The fear that keeps me going and going and going / Is the same fear that brings me to my knees,” Herring grinds out at The Far Field’ intensest on “Cave.” How do you deal with the paradox that your art is driven by the same pain of love that the touring artist’s lifestyle unforgivingly impedes? By using it as the fuel to carry on.
“North Star” could be read as a prequel to canon staple “Long Flight” as a weather delay keeps Herring from fulfilling a promise to be home soon, and in a record written about a sort of unrequited search for a self-actualized peace any respite is fleeting. “Oh, at last! / You’re here in my arms again / And I don’t know how long / So I won’t waste a bit,” he sings on “The Beauty of the Road.”
Still, to the casual listener, the Letterman meme viewer, much of this might be glided over. It is, after all, a pop structure built on an undeniable throb and grab. Sentiment aside, it’s just damn catchy. And though this is a record review, as is already apparent it is nearly impossible to separate the theatrical dimension of the live embodiment of these tracks from the spinning wax that seems tantalizingly lifeless by comparison.
To fully internalize The Far Field it helps to have witnessed the shocking ease with which Herring seamlessly transitions between the emotional convulsions of his stage prowl to the wide, disarming smile he flashes the second the songs end. “We’re just fucking around,” he often small talks in between, but one glimpse of the way his face contorts as he pounds the side of his head with his fist before collapsing to the ground gives you the feeling he is extremely not fucking around. Despite this, whereas most artists this deep into character are impenetrably impersonal, the down-to-earth accessibility Herring maintains throughout it all is truly a thing of beauty. The balance between tortured artist and man you could comfortably share a drink with is rarely struck with real quality, and it’s this fine line of flexible authenticity that make Future Islands’ music paradoxically familiar yet otherworldly, oscillating between primal and candor and doing both better than most bands can do even one.
This record benefits from this self-aware duality in more ways than one. “And what’s a song without you? / When every song I write is about you,“ Herring pines in single “Ran.” As he first penned a decade ago, “The Heart Grows Old,” and Herring has come to terms with much since then, avoiding hardening too much or burning out in the process. The Far Field is a matured and knowing hunger, one “ran ‘round the wailing world.”