The pomp and circumstance surrounding “concept albums” leaves listeners scratching their heads pretty often, but with a detailed vision and a perfectly focused scope, On The Water — the newest LP from Future Islands — succeeds in breathtaking fashion.
On the Water
The Baltimore trio, consisting of Gerrit Welmers (keyboards), William Cashion (bass/guitar) and Samuel Herring (vocals), refuses to adhere to traditional genres, choosing instead to create its own, “post-wave.” According to Herring in an interview with Thrill Jockey, post-wave “takes the emotional fragility of New Wave and (couples) it with the power and drive of Post-Punk.” However, on its newest release, Future Islands has continued refining its sound. Rather than focusing on each song individually, Future Islands opted to construct an expansive atmosphere of heartbreak, acceptance and closure that will leave listeners taken aback.
Literally recorded on the water (the members of Future Islands isolated themselves in an ocean-side home during recording), this bold album captures Herring’s emotional breakdown following a rough breakup. However, his lyrics are vague enough that nearly every listener can relate his cruel truths. The music intermittently flips between understated power and guileless, gritty emotion, but it’s the uniquely candid lyrics that are transcendent. In “The Great Fire”, Herring shamelessly admits, “If you let me be there again / I’ll be still, won’t say a word.” His regretful plea, sang with the vigor and conviction of a tragic Shakespearean hero, is amplified by the echoing guest vocals of Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, making “The Great Fire” one of the album’s highlights.
While “The Great Fire” encapsulates the depth of Herring’s sadness, “Give Us The Wind” acts as a fist-in-the-air tribute paying reverence to life’s journey. The vocals begin quietly with, “We set out to find something to hold / When seeking truth the answer / is the road.” As the song crescendos, Herring commands the powers above to “give us the storm” precisely so he can “fight the storm.” A refreshingly honest ode to vulnerability, “Give Us The Wind” shows Herring coming to terms with his heartbreak, but refusing to forget.
On The Water ends with three phenomenal tracks — “Balance,” “Tybee Island” and “Grease.” While the first two complete Herring’s healing process, “Grease” is a summarizing reflection on acceptance and the path to full recovery. Belting out his most grandiose lyrics yet, Herring asks, “What happened to youth? / What happened to truth? / What happened to me? / This song won’t change a thing.” His self-awareness is tragic and beautiful at the same time.
Nearly every song on On The Water could stand alone, but when listened to from top to bottom, the album becomes exponentially better. Not only are the lyrics evocative and fragile, but the expansive instrumentation and full sound create a uniquely theatrical experience. While all three members of Future Islands undeniably contribute to the success of the album, Herring’s vocals, an intriguing hybrid of emotion and enunciation, truly set the album apart. He is self-deprecatingly honest about his tortured soul, and his unflinching catharsis will move even the most uncaring listener. Like the aquatic nexus of the album, On The Water’s tides flow in and out, illustrating that, sooner or later, this too shall pass.