Album Review: Future Islands – As Long As You Are

[4AD; 2020]

It would be fair to say that Future Islands struggled to make the desired impact when last we heard from them. Striking gold on their fourth album, 2014’s Singles – helped considerably by their iconic Late Show with David Letterman performance of lead cut “Seasons (Waiting on You)” – the Baltimore band tried to capitalise on their increased profile on 2017’s The Far Field, but ended up with something slight that gave the impression that they were moving in place, stripped of the desire to push themselves forward.

The argument could be made that they weren’t given the space to adjust to fame after connecting with audiences in a way nobody could have predicted, but as the saying goes, what’s past is prologue. Future Islands are now a quartet, their lineup of bassist William Cashion, keyboardist Gerritt Welmers and vocalist Samuel T. Herring having been augmented by the addition of Michael Lowry on drums; and this, along with splitting production duties with Steve Wright, has enabled them to hit reset, in a sense. On As Long As You Are, they sound fully committed.

“Glada” opens proceedings on a wistful note, with Herring in reflective mood as he waxes poetic over a sleek musical backdrop, raking over the embers of his past – not for the last time – and wondering if he’s worthy of love. “Who am I? / Do I deserve the sea again, after all I’ve done?” he ponders, as Welmer’s keyboard line swells around him in a moment of bittersweet poignancy. The album’s overall lyrical perspective comes from a similarly personal place; the ‘you’ of its title refers to his partner, with whom he’s currently based in Sweden, and the notions of love and connection crop up frequently in its lyrics.

Effervescent lead single “For Sure” finds Herring drawing strength from that partnership, the song swept along by Cashion and Lowry in equal measure, their bass and drums making equal impact as the latter makes his presence felt as their new full-time sticksman. “When you say ‘us’, you make me trust / I will never keep you from an open door,” their charismatic leader bellows, recognising that the love that has enabled him to start a new chapter in his life – both personally and professionally – and that it is a mutable thing that ebbs and flows, but crucially is there when it’s needed. When he documents his struggles with body dysmorphia on “Plastic Beach”, he finds relief in knowing that he’s found someone who loves him for who he is. The following “Moonlight” is one of the band’s purest love songs, a cinematic beauty on which they play to their strengths.

Such songs contrast sharply with the album’s moments of introspection, with Herring humbled by the examination of previous relationship debris on “I Knew You”, somewhat of a sequel to In Evening Air highlight “Long Flight”. Indeed, it’s written about the same person, but while Herring will be the first to admit that he’s done wrong and been wronged in return (as on the self-lacerating “City’s Face”), there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then: “I knew you / I knew you as you were, not as you are.” While Herring also takes himself to task on “Waking”, singing “My words have been a shield for all my life,” its thread of self-examination is made to sound joyous by his bandmates.

As Long As You Are closes with the euphoric “Hit the Coast”, its lyrics yearning for progress and indicating a fervent desire to move on, so strong that it’s palpable; buoyed by the sort of momentum it was feared that Future Islands had lost.

A bracingly personal listen, As Long As You Are is as impactful as the follow-up to Singles should have been; it’s the sound of a band taking control. Here, Future Islands show they’ve no issue making up for lost time, and their sixth offering is more than a mere course correction; in a number of ways, it’s their most expressive record yet.