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Future Islands Find Love and Their Sound

David Caspar Friedrich’s 1818 oil painting “Wanderer Above the Sea Fog” is the quintessential Romantic period image: a lone man stands at the edge of a cliff surveying a valley shrouded by mist from turbulent waters. He’s contemplating nature and his nature, the landscape a mirror. As the viewer, we are steps away, watching him look out while looking in.

Samuel T. Herring, the lead singer of Future Islands, has never seen Friedrich’s painting until now. “I’ve been [that dude] my whole fucking life,” he says, Googling the image after I suggest it might resonate. “That is me.” 

For those who’ve followed the Baltimore-based synth-pop band since their 2008 debut Wave Like Home through 2017’s The Far Field, the image of Herring standing on a crag while pondering the ocean’s poetic resemblance to life and love should cohere. Every Future Islands album has either titular (On the Water), visual (Singles), or lyrical references to nature, the sea especially (“A Dream of You and Me”). The 36-year-old frontman sings, croons, and growls about the pain of losing love or the hope of finding it again. To listen to the first decade of Future Islands is to watch Herring peer over that precipice. The listener is near, also hoping that someone joins him for good, that love can be constant as the soil instead of as fleeting as a wave. If it can happen for Herring, then maybe so for us.

On the band’s new album, As Long as You Are (out Oct. 9 on 4AD), Herring has finally found that enduring, life-affirming love. 

Recently engaged to his partner of three years — Swedish actress Julia Ragnarsson — he celebrates his thriving relationship and reexamines those that failed. The band’s sixth album is uplifting and a document of healing, Future Islands’ best since their 2014, Letterman-assisted breakout Singles and arguably among the most polished in their catalog. On the jubilant lead-single “For Sure,” backed by expansive, sweeping melodies and driving drums, Herring somehow reaches new heights of passion, singing, “When you say ‘Us’ / You make me trust.” Later, on “I Knew You,” he finds bittersweet closure over somber synths: “We didn’t leave it all said and done / But will it be tonight? / Something in the cold of your eyes says, ‘Tonight.’” Herring’s moving forward but still working through, elated but reflective.

“Being in a healthy relationship for the first time in my adult life has allowed me to see the problems in my past relationships, understanding where I was wronged in relationships where I felt I was at fault and understanding my own faults in relationships where I felt I was wronged,” he says during a Zoom interview with the band. 

While keyboardist Gerrit Welmers, guitarist William Cashion, and drummer Michael Lowry speak from their respective Baltimore homes, Herring’s in Malmö, Sweden spending time with Ragnarsson after COVID-19 travel restrictions kept them apart for months. Later, when we speak one-on-one, she greets him off-screen. “Hey, baby,” he says, beaming, his voice brimming with joy. “There’s some coffee.”

As Long As You Are marks a life-altering transition for Herring as much as it signifies a shift for Future Islands. Unsatisfied with the way they recorded previous records, the band took much longer to compose the album. The earliest sessions date back to January 2019. They recorded for a few weeks before Herring jetted back to Sweden to see his partner and continued when he returned weeks later. Instead of blazing through a month-long burst of non-stop recording, they were able to hear the songs with fresh ears. They also became a quartet with the addition of Lowry (who played drums on The Far Field) and scaled back on outside input, handling production duties for the first time with the aid of engineer Steve Wright. When COVID-19 hit, they finished mixing via Zoom. Despite that hurdle, every member is happier with the mix than they’ve ever been.

“We were working toward sounding like us,” Welmers says. Throughout the album, his keys strike a balance between bright and poignant. They can be shimmering and soaring (“Waking”) or wistful (“City’s Face”). “We’ve had difficulty landing on a sound that we think is us. I think we’ve finally succeeded with this record.”

Engineers and audiophiles might notice the mixing changes on As Long As You Are, but the album still retains Future Islands’ sound. It’s Romanticism delivered with their nostalgic but singular amalgam of the sonic hallmarks of the ’80s. Herring’s dynamic voice — an affecting combination of zealot-like intensity, a thespian’s theatricality, and winsome earnestness — still sells you even when lyrics border on saccharine or verge into poetic abstraction (“The Painter”). But the record does have better pacing, a deft and captivating balance of highs (“Waking”) and lows (“Thrill”) that can perhaps also be attributed to their decision to record in one space.

“I think it was important for us to keep the [recording] process close,” explains William Cashion, whose deep, New Order-esque basslines provide the backbone on songs like “Born in a War.” “What we were finding is that [with each subsequent record] we would go off for a longer period of time. For On the Water, we spent two or three weeks down in North Carolina. And then Singles we were up in upstate New York for about a month. And then for The Far Field we were in L.A. for five or six weeks… [And] we spend so much of our time on tour. We talked about just trying to keep things local so that we weren’t always living out of a suitcase.”

In keeping with the endless and unfortunate ironies of 2020, Future Islands, a group renowned for their enthralling live shows, will not be able to tour for the foreseeable future. No one will be able to watch Herring’s infamous dance moves, to watch the band improvise and find new permutations of the songs on As Long as You Are. To remedy this, they’re broadcasting a livestream of their only show of 2020 (number 1236 for anyone counting) on release day for As Long as You Are

“It’s such a big part of this band. It’s really strange not to be able to share this with people,” Herring says. “I’m nervous. I’m never nervous. But that’s a good thing. I feel like when I’m nervous I really put on.”

Billed as A Stream of You and Me, the band says they’ll be playing the bulk of the new album and, according to Herring, “old hits for the heads.” He’ll return to Baltimore a few days before the show to rehearse, but (travel permitting) he’s heading back to his fiance in Sweden soon afterward. With the songs from As Long as You Are played alongside past hits, the audience should hear the band’s sonic trajectory. Perhaps they’ll also see Herring in a new light, as he now sees himself.

“Julia has really allowed me to see everything in a new way than I’ve seen before, [to] look at my past relationships in different lights and my successes in different ways… [We all] carry so much regret in our lives. ‘Why did I choose this path instead of this path?’ But then you find yourself at the end of the journey, long past where you thought any good could come. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, I found I found it. I found peace. I don’t need to wander alone and be like the dude on the cliff.’”