In May, Baltimore's Future Islands stopped by NPR for a Tiny Desk Concert, in the middle of a victory lap for 2010's excellent In Evening Air. During the band's performance, singer Sam Herring revealed his modus operandi as a songwriter: "I want you to cry," he said. "I want you to feel the way I feel. I want to crush."
Herring and Future Islands succeed on their latest release — On the Water, out Oct. 11 — which trades (most of) the band's dance-floor catharsis for heart-tugging slow-burners. If you're worried that the loss of beats per minute hinders what has made the band memorable live and in the recording studio, don't fret. The group has the ability to make affecting music by using less — for an example, see the title track, which opens the record.
Despite the minimalist approach, Future Islands' members make use of the studio and take advantage of the overwhelming amount of talent in their home city. Lush strings highlight "Grease," while field recordings of wind chimes and the sea bookend the album. Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner makes an appearance in the lovely "The Great Fire," while Double Dagger's Denny Bowen provides live drums and percussion throughout On The Water.
Herring's vocals, which have been likened to everyone from David Bowie to Meat Loaf to the Sea Captain on The Simpsons, remain the center of attention. On Water, they're softer and less unhinged, but they still carry the forceful weight of loss and reflection. Herring inhabits every inflection in his voice as he describes distant or not-so-distant memories in "Where I Found You," singing, "I remember your smile / The smell of your skin / The way that you walked / and laughed."
Billed as a concept album about "two parallel journeys — one physical and one psychological," the album has an ebb and flow, much like the ocean near which it was recorded in North Carolina. Yet On The Water doesn't have a straight narrative throughout. Herring leaves enough clues for listeners to get an idea of what has happened to the narrator, but enough space to insert a bit of themselves into the song.
Like the last two Future Islands albums, this one is driven by a broken heart, but On the Water still offers hope. Take this passage from "Balance" as proof: "And I can sit and talk, because I was just like you / So arrogant and brave, impetuous and blue / But trust me as a friend, I'll do all that I can do / I'd do anything for you, because I want to see you through / It just takes time / You can change your life."