The stakes have always been high in Future Islands’ music. On “North Star,” neither blizzards nor falling skies could stop the narrator from reaching his beloved. In “Ran,” frontman Samuel T. Herring admits he won’t survive unless he reaches her fast enough. Between the throbbing synths, Herring’s signature guttural growl and lyrics like “My sun, every morning / My star of the evening / My moon, always beaming” (“Sun in the Morning”), love, commitment and romance have always been akin to life-or-death matters in Future Islands’ world.
On their sixth LP As Long As You Are (out now on 4AD), Herring and co. (Michael Lowry, Gerrit Welmers and William Cashion) once again explore the life-altering pangs of love through their signature melodrama. But there are also broader issues on the table. On the impeccable single “Born in a War,” Future Islands lament our capitalist lifestyles and condemn gun violence. “It’s all so temporary / Life’s work, don’t play that way,” Herring sings. “Life’s more than cash and carry / All your guns, to your grave.” At this terrifying moment—when hundreds of thousands of American lives have been sacrificed in the name of consumerism and “getting back to business”—this song feels more than a little bit applicable. While it’s not necessarily a commentary on 2020, it would fit perfectly on a playlist supporting a Biden/Harris campaign.
However, as much as there is to grieve and thrash over, As Long As You Are doesn’t dwell on the darkness of our American failure for too long; there’s plenty of exploring matters of the heart. “Moonlight” is another study of intimacy in the style Future Islands have become known for: full of tender details, but sonically aggressive. Herring offers up his heart and then asks that the receiver not “break it” before singing, “So we just lay in bed all day / I couldn’t see a cloud in my arms.” “For Sure,” another pulsing single, finds freedom within a relationship as Herring promises, “I will never keep you from an open door / I know, you know / That’s how much I feel in everything you are.” It’s a rather comforting covenant.
From the Letterman performance that made them famous in 2014 to now, Herring’s voice has always been a hot topic of conversation. His ragged chords produce a sound that’s a mix between animalistic and gothic—and it’s positively inimitable in the truest sense of the word. No one in indie music—or anywhere else for that matter—sounds like Samuel T. Herring. His punishing vocals are on full display in “I Knew You,” one of the slower and darker songs on As Long As You Are in which Herring references another song from his own repertoire: “I think that you knew / He’d drive all night cuz all that you sighed / Was, “What if ‘Long Flight’ was about you?” / But it was and it was about you too.” Herring told Apple Music that “I Knew You” focuses on a recurring character throughout Future Islands’ music, so it’s no surprise that it’s as intense as “Long Flight” (from 2010’s In Evening Air). On the slow-burning “Thrill,” the band experiment with some Soft Cell-esqe synthwork, all slow and sleepy, as Herring compares addiction to a rushing river in Greenville, N.C., where the band began.
Herring steals the spotlight again on “Plastic Beach,” perhaps the most Future Islands-y song on this album. While he’s often fighting valiantly to win the love of someone else, here, rather, he’s struggling through a long battle to self-love. “Now I see, I see tomorrow / I see, I see tomorrow,” he sings, addressing himself in the “mirror.” “And, ‘You’re my beautiful. And you’re beautiful just this way.’”
While As Long As You Are doesn’t quite hold a candle to 2014’s nearly immaculate Singles (home to their biggest hit “Seasons [Waiting On You]”), nor does it match the blistering travelogue that is 2017’s The Far Field, there are few faults to be found here. It’s a listening experience that’s as satisfying and rewarding as those aforementioned records. With a band as assured and stylistically unique as Future Islands, a choice to stay in their lane can only mean more good things. Future Islands could make a dozen more albums like this—existential yet hopeful, synth-dominate yet lightweight—and I wouldn’t complain once.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.