Indie Music

Future Islands: People Who Aren’t There Anymore review | Alexis Petridis’s album of the week

The last time the world heard from Future Islands was in 2020. As Long As You Are was an album that suggested things had rectified themselves after a turbulent period in the band’s history. In 2014, 11 years into their career, they had been catapulted from a well-reviewed but small scale cult concern – “a journeyman band”, as frontman Samuel T Herring put it – to viral superstardom virtually overnight thanks to their first television appearance, performing Seasons (Waiting on You) live on The Late Show With David Letterman. Suddenly they could sell out multiple nights at the Brixton Academy and lure Debbie Harry into the studio to record a duet, and could only play the venues they had once called home under a pseudonym. Perhaps inevitably, it brought problems. They more-or-less disowned their 2017 album The Far Field, a “condescending” attempt at “playing the game” that bassist William Cashion called “fucking embarrassing”. But As Long As You Are was an album that sounded contented: there were a lot of songs about the redemptive power of love and the joys of frontman Samuel T Herring’s burgeoning relationship. One was named Glada, which is what red kites are called in Sweden, where Herring was spending most of his time with his partner, Julia Ragnarsson, star of the amazingly titled Swedish drama series Fartblinda (Blinded).

There are songs not unlike that on the follow-up: People Who Aren’t There Anymore opens with King of Sweden, which depicts Herring so lovestruck he’s reverted to punk-obsessed adolescence (“feeling like I’m 15, wandering with the Misfits”); “I belong to you, I belong to you,” he sings on Deep in the Night. But this time around those songs feel marooned, scattered through an album that’s primarily concerned with describing the collapse of his relationship: King of Sweden’s chorus of “you are all I need / Nothing said could change a thing” feels coloured by what follows, the deployment of Herring’s trademark vocal growl suddenly seeming pained rather than cathartic in context.

One reason the Letterman appearance went viral was that Herring’s performance seemed so impassioned and unaffected – in a world of carefully posed cool, here was someone on stage who gave the impression they had no filter, Instagram or otherwise, who seemed to be dancing like no one was watching, beating his chest so hard you could hear it over the music and reaching imploringly towards the audience as he sang. There’s a similar sense here. Distance seems to have done for the relationship: there’s a lot of stuff about trying to stay in contact while in different time zones, while The Sickness and Deep in the Night imply that they were caught out by Covid lockdowns that stranded them on opposite sides of the world (“Our love died in two places – I had to watch it fall apart from here / You had to watch it disappear”). But whatever the reason, People Who Aren’t There Anymore is pretty unsparing in its detail, picking over everything from the first vague stirrings of discontent – “I tell myself ‘it’s OK’, when it’s not quite” – through some lacerating self-examination on Give Me the Ghost Back and Peach’s depiction of a desperate, doomed attempt to make things work again, to a kind of disconsolate acceptance on Corner of My Eye.

It’s strong stuff, made slightly disorientating by the fact that the songs don’t tell the story in any kind of order – you go from despair to ardent expressions of love to stoical acceptance – but leavened by the music. Future Islands have opted to refine rather than radically overhaul their sound over the course of their seven albums, and it’s tempting to say that if you’ve heard any of them, you’ll know what to expect here: metronomic rhythms, surging quiet-loud dynamics, a high bass sound indebted to Peter Hook, alternately glacial and shimmering synthesisers rooted in the band’s love of early 80s OMD that turn a little stadium rock towards the chorus, Herring’s distinctive vocals.

There are certainly some incremental sonic developments audible here – more subtle shadings of guitar than previously, a shuffling rhythm on Iris that seems faintly west African – but the album’s currency clearly doesn’t lie in springing sonic surprises. It lies in setting Herring’s lyrics to striking melodies, an area in which it fully delivers: soaring on the ballad-tempo Corner of My Eye, lush on Peach, sparkling at odds with the doleful emotions of Say Goodbye. It makes for an album that’s too involving and engaging and powerful to count as merely more of the same: you leave the turmoil of People Who Aren’t There Anymore feeling moved, rather than jaded.

This week Alexis listened to

Nadine ShahGreatest Dancer
Thundering Adam and the Ants drums, emotive vocals, synths that alternately drift and blare: pop music with heft.

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