10 Feb 2024

Review: People Who Aren't There Anymore by Future Islands

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 10 February 2024
Future Islands

Photo: Frank Hamilton

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Even ten years on, mention of the band Future Islands still brings to mind their performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, which introduced a wider audience to their frontman’s larger-than-life style, and went viral online, thanks in part to the host’s mix of amusement and appreciation. 

Since then very little has changed in terms of their approach, but their new effort still impresses in fits and starts, thanks largely to its unflagging sincerity.

I must admit, I approached this release with a degree of skepticism. I was a fan of Future Island’s earlier work, including their EP Undressed, a collection of essentially ‘unplugged’ versions of older songs. I thought the aesthetic there might signal a new direction for the band, but the Letterman performance of their track ‘Seasons’ seemed to cement that specific style.

Luckily songs like ‘King of Sweden’ pair unfussy, emotive lyrics like “you are all I need” with a genuine, rugged type of energy.

The bands’ bio specifies their lack of guitar player - they’re made up of bass, keyboards and vocals, which may have been notable in the indie landscape ten years ago, but less so now - and for a long while they were san drummer too, but now Mike Lowry has joined as permanent stickman, as well as joining the rest of the band on production duties.

The most notable trademark though is Samuel T Herring’s unmistakable voice, which is striking even without the visual accompaniment of him banging his chest, reaching out to the audience, or pulling some unique dance moves.

He’s guttural, soulful, and always 100% committed. 

‘The Fight’ falls into the ‘ballad’ half of Future Island’s stylistic blueprint, a mode that might suit Herring’s soul-baring approach even more than the high energy dancey numbers. Those generally hover around a similar tempo, with the ballads at half speed. Which makes it something of a relief when a track like ‘Iris’ shows up, with a markedly different ratio of beats per minute.

Sam Herring is an interesting character: he also raps under the name Hemlock Ernst, and has begun a career as an actor. In interviews he’s said that in the past his lyrics concerned events from the past, but around half the songs on People Who Aren’t There Anymore were written about something more immediate, as a long-distance relationship came to an end during the COVID pandemic and subsequent border closures. 

So, maybe a degree more sincerity than usual, but there was plenty there to begin with. And as always, it’s balanced with plenty of exuberance.