Three years since their breakthrough album Singles, an album “of singles” that flexed about as much as the title might suggest, Future Islands have returned with their fifth LP, The Far Field. Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, the three-piece have been committed to their particular brand of hard-edged synth-pop revival for over 11 years. The Far Field is a stunning summation of this dedication and experience, perhaps also the most linear record in the band’s discography. Future Islands regularly tour with drummer Michael Lowry, but recruited him to play for the studio recordings this time around, lending the album a greater sense of direction than previous records. Despite the relatively boring “Candles,” The Far Field delivers on the promise that Future Islands made with Singles in 2014: a purposeful step towards accessibility without compromise of the band’s core values.
This step is made immediately evident with anthemic singles “Ran” and “Cave,” frontman and vocalist Sam Herring’s familiarly hearty rasp soaring over fast footstep-like cymbals. In the music video for “Ran,” Herring, fittingly, runs across a countryside before closing out the last minute crooning from behind dancing embers. Like Future Islands’ live performances, Herring’s face contorts itself, the visible strain in his brow evidence of his earnestness, an earnestness perhaps even more central to the band’s identity than Herring’s voice.
Profound earnestness is not the only constant the band has carried through to this release, however. On the lyric sheet included with the vinyl edition of the album, just below the list of acknowledgments, is a small note that the album’s title was inspired by Theodore Roethke’s poem of the same name, itself the fifth in a series titled “North American Sequence.” The poem informs not just the album’s themes, but the band’s mission statement, much in the same way that In Evening Air was inspired by Roethke’s poem “In Evening Air” (the two albums’ artworks are also done by the same artist, Kymia Nawab). The actual effect of the parallels between these albums is relatively insignificant, but they serve as evidence that the band’s inspiration remains unchanged, bringing a greater sense of cohesion to its body of work.
Roethke’s “The Far Field” is a piece obsessed with journeying and nature and largeness, especially all as compared to the individual. “I learned not to fear infinity / The far field, the windy cliffs of forever / The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow / The wheel turning away from itself / The sprawl of the wave / The on-coming water.” So ends the second part of “The Far Field,” evoking images of vastness, the same way The Far Field does with its soaring quality and occasional slow builds, from individuality to infinity.
The opening track, “Aladdin,” is the starkest embodiment of this slow build, rising out of nothing in such a way that you may wonder for a moment whether you actually clicked play. The sort of detail that reveals its importance over listens, this fade-in is an indicator of Future Islands’ commitment to a theme; it makes sense that an album that confronts the relationship between the finite and the infinite must become slowly, from nothing, as did man. However, where Roethke is content with himself as finite, “renewed by death, thought of [his] death, / The dry scent of a dying garden in September,” Herring struggles with the same knowledge. On “Cave” he pleads: “Is this a desperate wish for dying? / Or a wish that dying cease? / The fear that keeps me going and going and going / Is the same fear that brings me to my knees.”
Similar parallels include the reflection of Roethke’s “dying garden” in the roses (“Through the Roses,” “Black Rose”) of The Far Field. “Through the Roses” struggles with reconciling the highs and lows of life, before the chorus’s proclamation that “It’s not easy, just being human.” The track also hints at the suicidal thoughts of the narrator, perhaps Herring himself. Though keyboardist Gerrit Welmers’s and bassist William Cashion’s arrangements are expansive and sprawling, Herring’s accompanying vocals are often autobiographical in nature. “Black Rose” finds Herring wishing for another chance at love with a particular significant other, while “Beauty of the Road” is similar in thought and the most pointedly autobiographical, opening with the lines: “Left out on the road eight years ago / And you left too but I never really thought you would go.”
On The Far Field, lyrical and stylistic decisions juxtapose the singular man and the expansiveness of being, continuing Future Islands’ obsession — a welcome one — with nature. All of the band’s album titles, save Singles, refer to nature (Wave Like Home, In Evening Air, On The Water, The Far Field) and mentions of blizzards, gardens, fire, rain and the overwhelming power of water are sprinkled throughout the album. The album’s only duet, “Shadows,” even invokes religion, with mentions of Dante and the Garden of Eden that further contextualize the experience of the individual. Masterfully creating a space both large enough to lose yourself in and simultaneously small enough that you may just see what looks like your reflection, peering back out at you, The Far Field leaves us with one final suggestion: “All finite things reveal infinitude.”