Album Review: Future Islands – People Who Aren’t There Anymore

[4AD; 2024]

With a beloved band, we experience new releases through the lens of past albums. Patiently deep-listening, nitpicking the crumbs of sounds that are new enough to feel original but familiar enough to ascribe meaning to our reminiscence. You keep listening because you adore the band that much. How desperately we desire to love that which we have been waiting for.

Future Islands were accused of going back to the well on their last album, As Long As You Are, but remember, they are a synth pop band and true to form, keep a synthesizer as the predominant instrument. And what do we want after all? An album of comfortable familiar tracks that we will listen to all the way through? Or do we want our band to turn its sound on its head while we try to forgive them for deserting our fragile ears?

Charm City-based Future Islands play into our open-earedness with their latest People Who Aren’t There Anymore. This affair proves their sound may be calcified a decade and a half after their debut album in 2008, but we love them for it. Even non-fans remember the 2014 performance of “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on The Late Show with David Letterman. It is indisputable that Future Islands became iconic on that night with those Elaine-esque “full body dry heaves” and sizzling glottal fry all wrapped in a synthpop blanket. That “Seasons” performance hurled them into popularity and subject to commentary, with which frontman Samuel T. Herring admits it took six years to come to terms.

Herring has written all of the lyrics for the band and has consistently shown that he is deeply reflective and empathetic. While the themes haven’t changed over time, the maturity of his introspection has evolved as is appropriate.

Opening track “King of Sweden” introduces us to the merging of souls, with a wobbly synth melody and back beat underscoring the huskily caught-breaths of “you are all I need.” “Threw a bottle cross the water / To someone who’s thinking of me,” Herring sings at the start of following track “The Tower”, before “Deep in the Night” draws us in those quiet times when we but feel connection to someone, even if they are distant.

“Say Goodbye” is that long distance relationship across time zones and the ultimate fading of the tendrils that bind them. It seems to be about Herring’s breakup with longtime partner. “Give Me the Ghost Back” follows in appropriately lovelorn fashion. “Say goodbye to that old white knight / no fairytale ending for my night / just death and life,” Herring laments. It’s a familiar theme for Future Islands but with a dominant fuzz guitar that feels new. 

Herring makes us all want to be in a relationship with him, if not just for the ending. He makes us feel that, in the end, what we all want is a dissolve without contempt. “Corner of My Eye” is a dose of that gentle adoration of a lost love; loving it for what it was: loving the flaws the most, perhaps. “Can’t take away what you gave me / ’cause in a real way you saved me.”  

“Iris” starts with a “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” drum phrasing, inspired by Niger artist Mamman Sani. “But if the seeds are rotten / are we the rotten fruit?”, Herring questions atop this rhythm. “Iris” is the decision stage, where we break old habits. 

People Who Aren’t Here Anymore gives us a suite of songs that are well structured, pristinely mixed, and played with heart. It is authentic and sincere. We have been here before but will always be enchanted by the honeymoon stage of Future Islands and where it ends up: wholehearted love, even in separation.

Future Islands’ discography defines how we process emotion as we age, be it with lovers, career, friends, or family all wrapped up in that synth pad that we call home. You ultimately get to a point when you realize how to stop repeating old patterns and move on, evolve, but you don’t ultimately change. People Who Aren’t There Anymore was not written as a reflection but a documentary of the emotional processes the band members were going through at the time. The meaning of the songs will continue to change for the band over time, just as they will for listeners.