Andy McCluskey is the singer-bassist in the pioneering British electronic pop group Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, also known as OMD. Their song “Enola Gay” is a synth-pop classic, and “If You Leave,” from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, hit #4 in the U.S. in 1986. Their latest album is English Electric. McCluskey also co-wrote songs for Atomic Kitten, who scored a #1 UK hit in 2001 with “Whole Again.” You can follow OMD on Twitter here and on Facebookhere.
OK, let’s get this over in the first paragraph. I am reliably informed that many find similarities between my band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Future Islands. Are they guilty of lazy comparison? Two bands from different generations who happen to demonstrate a few similar musical parameters. I can hear pastoral keyboards. I can hear driving eighth-note bass guitar. I hear programmed drums and I hear a singer who wears his emotions on his sleeve. Are these the connections? It’s not enough. Forget any comparison. Future Islands create their own highly distinctive aural landscape.
However, those of us who resonate to the frequencies created by the juxtaposition of raw emotion and rigid structure will find much that feels like home on the new album Singles. William Cashion’s pulsing bass glues Gerrit Welmer’s steady drum programming and delicate keyboards, creating the perfect foil for Samuel T. Herring’s tortured vocals. One wonders if, left to his own devices, Herring would let his best intentions disappear into a fog of mangled vowels. I suspect that he needs the silken straightjacket of the music to restrain his more exaggerated vocal flailings. He would only hurt himself — and his listeners. Earlier recordings showcase a man managing his intensity more resolutely, as if frightened by just where it may lead him; on Singles it pours out. An avalanche of angst and ire, but the music can sustain it. If this were industrial thrudge or EBM there would be nowhere for Herring. He would take his vocals right over the cliff. But his band members have got him. He sails out from the rock face sure in the knowledge that Cashion and Welmer have the pitons secure.
So far so good, but why are Future Islands everybody’s new favourite band? How did we reach the tipping point? Singles as a collection of songs is very impressive. Also, the production is simplified, opening up the sound and perhaps allowing the vocals to sit more clearly in their own space rather than hidden in effects. I suspect that the performance of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on the Letterman show was a catalyst. To actually get blasé Dave out of his seat and fawning like a schoolgirl at a One Direction concert takes some doing. “I’ll take all of that you’ve got” he chimes as the credits roll. And who wouldn’t? We have seen dozens of fresh new faces fade to damp insignificance on The Late Show. But here was a band who shone with a quiet, fearless confidence that their measured canter would carry their singer to the finishing line as he cavorted so exactly like a young Brando teetering between kissing or crushing Eva Marie Saint. I was so impressed. This was once-in-ten-years TV. This makes careers.
I have found myself singing “Seasons (Waiting On You)” for the past week. This is indicative of another change for Future Islands: The new songs are just that bit more solid. A touch tidier and therefore more memorable. They leave you marked with a melody as much as a feeling. Here is a difference. To make a sporting analogy: You can watch a great game but you remember the goals, touchdowns and home runs. The new album is full of home runs. Perhaps the band didn’t even realize that they had finally distilled their art into such a winning formula. Perhaps Chris Coady’s production is the difference. I have no idea. But something coalesced perfectly.
I could now fill a paragraph with remarks about individual tracks. The great sequencer and bass on “Spirit.” Brilliant vocal and keyboard melodies on “Back in the Tall Grass” and “Sun in the Morning.” Even a track not on the album, the “Seasons” b-side “One Day,” has beautiful synths reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.” When was the last time you could say that of any piece of music? What a lovely souvenir. But that is enough. Each listener will find their own gorgeous moments as they wander round this album.
There is no negative artistic criticism that I would offer in public. I have finally grown up. I am also fortunate that I don’t make a living out of reviews so that I can stick to not saying anything at all if I don’t have anything nice to say. This review exists because I love this album and wish to extol its virtues as I see them.
There is so much bullshit written about music; its value and perception. Here is an album that shows me that there is a demonstrable difference between purity of vision and well intentioned muddle. However, other listeners may not resonate in the way that I do. I respect each listener but I also respect every artist’s craft. I know how much it hurts to have your best endeavour lacerated by some arrogant reviewer more interested in their reflective words than in your actual work. When an album is released it is usually long after the beautiful conception but immediately following the painful birth. You have no idea what you just delivered but you know it hurt and you love it for all the right reasons even if, in years to come, you may reflect that it’s not your bonniest baby. So why is Singles better than Future Islands’ previous albums Wave Like Home (2008), In Evening Air (2010), and On the Water (2011)? Because I said so. It’s my opinion. That’s all. To my ears it is the crystallisation of all that they do. This album is by a modern American band. It is symbolist art haunted by melancholy and it puts me in mind of Hopper paintings. And that is the greatest praise that I can bestow upon it!