I’ve never met a person who didn’t find something compelling about looking backwards while riding in a car, a boat, or a train hurtling forward. There’s something oddly comforting — but also kind of sad — about training your eyes on where you’ve been while you continue to move on with your life. And that’s the same sort of conflicted sensation Future Islands’ oceanophilic album On the Water yields. The lyrics are all bound up in memories, ghosts of past experiences lurking around every corner — but just like the sea’s constant movement prevents you from getting tangled up in what lies beneath, the chugging rhythms that set the pace for Water‘s songs keep emotional wallowing to a minimum. Water is the product of the band reconciling the past with the future — and sounding like a more mature band in the process. Frontman Samuel Herring even sounds older; he tones down his tendency to slip into Pirate-Tom Waits mode and on the whole sounds less dramatic and more like someone exhausted from his journey but determined to press on nonetheless.
There’s a lot of exorcising memories through movement on this album. On “Give Us the Wind,” Herring whispers “When seeking truth, the answer is the road/ When seeking wisdom, the journey is your home,” and the propulsive instrumentation is cleverly matched to the lyrics, unraveling the problem through movement. Synthesizers still occasionally get flak for not being able to convey the range of expression that non-digital instruments can; but a deft touch on the tempo can drastically change the song’s emotion. It’s an instrument that can sound anxious and restless, slowed to the point of inertia, or some happy medium between, like “The Great Fire.” Islands expertly use fellow Baltimorean (and Wye Oak frontwoman) Jenn Wasner’s heartbreaking voice on “Fire”; she stays on Herring’s heels the whole song, repeating each lyric like a call-and-response duet. Instead of representing opposing points of view, she’s a ghostly echo of Herring’s emotions. It’s a technique that could have easily turned into a New Wave “Somewhere Out There,” but keeping it understated turns it into a thoughtful love gained/ love lost song.
Islands convened in coastal Elizabeth City, NC to record Water, and it shows; each song sounds like the ocean. “Close to None”‘s percussion sounds like synthetic waves crashing against a rock. “Balance” begins with a riff tweaked to sound like an accordion playing a sea shanty of sorts. Woozy synths start out serene, then quietly shift to restlessness. And to complete the ocean metaphor, consider the fact that although a shoreline is constantly moving and evolving, there’s a predictable, easily charted pattern to what we perceive as changeability. In a similar way, Water applies a pattern to Herring’s jumbled backlog of memories; the songs are obviously personal, but lack of detail in the lyrics keeps them from feeling like you’re peeking through someone’s diary. It’s boilerplate enough that anyone’s young-adult-existential dread feels applicable to these situations.
I suppose “Tybee Island” might be an exception — but to me, it’s one of the most affecting, personal songs on the album, maybe because we went to the beach there a lot when I was a kid. The lyrics center on the phrase “My head slipped into the sand,” and it’s mixed such that the sounds of waves crashing ashore nearly drown out the instrumentation and vocals. It’s a close sonic approximation of what it might feel like to get completely consumed by the past — but the good thing about water is that given enough time, it’ll erode anything. Which makes it fitting that, after all those crashing waves, the album ends on a “what next” note. After “Little Tybee” lets our heads slip into the sand, Islands dig us out with glittery coda “Grease.” It’s not an uplifting view of the future, but it’s mature, stoic, recognizing (and accepting) repeating patterns in life and nature: “We say the same thing, and the same song plays on the radio.”
Future Islands have been quietly kicking ass for about four years — and hopefully, this’ll be the album that launches them to a position closer to the forefront of indie rock consciousness. Water is leagues more mature than last year’s In Evening Air — the production more robust, the lyrics more evocative of people who’ve been around long enough to know what’s worth lamenting. As good as a track like Air‘s “Tin Man” is, it’s clearly the thoughts of a younger man: “You’ve got a lot to learn in life/ And our hearts, large inside, and I’ve got to find the one that’s just right.” Water‘s a post-script to those thoughts — what happens when you do find the right one? What happens if you don’t? Regardless, you hopefully keep making more albums like this.