For a band comprised of members from such varied musical backgrounds, the synthpop stylings of Future Islands have always been strikingly straightforward, and in a way that has often worked against the group. The Maryland trio’s brand of slick, danceable new wave has always held its own clear-cut place amongst contemporary indie pop, but that’s not to say that sifting through their discography won’t evoke any feelings of déjà vu. Particularly as a result of frontman Samuel Herring’s melancholic lyrics and unique stage presence, Future Islands can certainly be credited for having crafted their own definitive musical identity, but the extent to which they have managed to make the most of this has been limited, often recycling the same songwriting fundamentals as to lack any real variety throughout their back-catalogue. The title of their previous full-length release, Singles, seemingly refers to the group’s attitude towards composing, in that an album’s worth of Future Islands songs will often feel more like a compilation of stand-alone singles, as opposed to a sequence of interconnected songs contained within a full record that progresses with fluidity and cohesion. Whilst such an approach could definitely be used to great effect, in the case of Future Islands, their songs have so commonly lacked satisfying variation that their releases have routinely suffered from forgettability, due to the extent to which all the tracks would blend into one another. Again, given that the synthpop outfit have managed to maintain a recognisable sound, it seems obvious that simply taking a few stylistic or compositional risks could do wonders for a full-length project of theirs, and that is essentially what I, and many others, have been waiting for from Future Islands. In terms of how well their newest album, The Far Field, answers these desires, the band have continued to tread water without adding anything of note to their sound. Outside of its slightly glossier production value, The Far Field adds very little to the Future Islands roster, rather it seemingly could have been released at any point in their career, whilst any number of the songs that appear here could be switched for any number of previous Future Islands songs without altering the flow of the record in any noticeable fashion. As such, the material on The Far Field, once again, adheres so closely to the pre-established Future Islands formula that few of its songs stand out at all from the surrounding cuts in the tracklisting, with the entire album itself blending into the group’s broader discography. Unfortunately, The Far Field suffers from a severe case of familiarity, with practically all of its songs complying to the same blueprint as to sound almost mechanical in their execution at times, failing to convey the charisma that Future Islands can often retain in small bursts.
As is typically the case on a Future Islands record, the band shows that they have a good ear when it comes to melody, but The Far Field shows perhaps more than ever before that the nice little tunes to feature on these tracks don’t come to full fruition when packaged within disappointingly humdrum song structures, and when the group’s influences are so clearly on display. The dainty melody played by the guitar and bass on Ran, for instance, is perfectly lovely on the ears, but the predictable and unsatisfying linear formation of the song leaves this tune to grow redundant and tired after a while. What’s more, despite Herring’s vocals usually being Future Islands’ greatest strength, on this track, the singer conveys somewhat of a blue-eyed soul hue to the tone and delivery of his voice, which doesn’t go over all that well, sounding slightly shaky and fitting rather awkwardly over the synthpop instrumental. Ran also highlights an issue that recurs across a handful of cuts from The Far Field, and one that has appeared on previous Future Islands albums, that being the extent to which the band quite clearly evokes its influences without playing with their stylings in a significant enough manner as to make this seem justified. In particular, New Order seem to be a constant touchstone for Future Islands on The Far Field, particularly on tracks like Ran, as well as Time on Her Side and Day Fire Glow, not just musically, but also in the poignant romanticism of Herring’s lyricism. The steady, up-tempo drumming, crisp, poppy bass lines and airy synth leads of a song like Time on Her Side come together just like a track from Power, Corruption & Lies, with the band seemingly relying solely on Herring’s unique vocal inflection and the admittedly well-incorporated horn section to disassociate the song from its obvious New Order influence. Unfortunately, Herring’s vocal quirks are never quite enough to succeed in basing a track’s entire identity just off his performance. Plus, as far as Herring’s versatility as a vocalist goes, his abilities are seldom utilised to their full potential on a Future Islands record. I’m well aware of his talent as a rapper, with Hemlock Ernst, Herring’s hip hop pseudonym, routinely collaborating with some of my favourite underground rappers, most recently with Open Mike Eagle on the track Protectors of the Heat from his latest album. I, therefore, often find myself underwhelmed with the lack of variety in Herring’s deliveries across the entire tracklisting of a Future Islands project, and The Far Field sees no real change in this regard.
Indeed, with the vast majority of The Far Field simply being business as usual for Future Islands, the few instances in which there is a slight chance taken stand out significantly, but they don’t always go over quite so effectively. For example, the way in which the drums and bass carry the groove during the verse section of Candles, with the rhythmic phrasing emphasising the third beat of the bar, creates a vibe not far off from a reggae song. Whilst interesting for a Future Islands album, the laid-back reggae-infused beat clashes in a rather off-putting way with the 80s-sounding synth chords. Shadows is another one of the more interesting songs in the tracklisting, solely due to the appearance from Debbie Harry. The extent to which the Blondie frontwoman is employed effectively is debatable, however, because, although her and Herring’s vocals pair together in a rather charming and distinct manner, Shadows is also one of the most inconspicuous songs from The Far Field instrumentally speaking, so it seems as if Harry could have been utilised better elsewhere. As for any sort of noteworthy exploration by Future Islands on their latest record, however, there is little else more to speak of outside of a few inclusions of interesting instrumental choices. Indeed, once again, the band remains so firmly rooted in their comfort zone that there is little to get out of The Far Field that can’t be found on Future Islands’ previous releases, nor do many of the songs on the album exhibit many distinguishing features from the tracks surrounding them, making for another record that is unfortunately rather unmemorable.
Ultimately, Future Islands’ minimal willingness to take risks on The Far Field is so inconsequential that it overcomes none of the problems regarding the band’s persistent recycling of their pre-established blueprint. As a result, this album is another collection of songs that may be perfectly pleasing in their own individual rights, but are all so similar that, when they come together in the context of a full record, the lack of discernible qualities becomes highly apparent and makes for an all-too-familiar release. For fans of a rigid synthpop formula, comprised of high-energy, danceable beats, driving bass grooves and fluttering synth arpeggios, there is certainly nothing disagreeable about The Far Field, but there is also little incentive to revisit this record over others within the genre. I still see far greater potential in Future Islands’ sound, and this new record by no means changes this opinion, but it is also a far cry from the fully realised project that I think they are capable of producing. All in all, as sweet as The Far Field is on the ears, this alone is not enough to overcome its serious déjà vu factor.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5/10