The Far Field is the title of the fifth album by Future Islands. It’s also the name of the final volume of poetry by Theodore Roethke. Coincidence? No—the second Future Islands album, In Evening Air, also shares its name with a Roethke work. The band’s apparent fondness for the writer makes sense when you listen to the beauty and introspection in their music. With lyrics full of glistening imagery and instrumentation that sets the mood for revelations, much of the The Far Field could be described as poetry, indeed.
Many reviewers describe Future Islands as synthpop. The band itself disagrees with this classification, preferring to call itself “post-wave”: a label that marries the thunder of new wave with the lightning of post-punk in one powerful storm. Although there’s some value in Romeo’s declaration “What’s in a name?”, the connotation of “post-wave” aptly describes the experience that The Far Field delivers. When you look up modern synthpop bands, the acts that come up are artists like Owl City and Empire of the Sun, who don’t quite tap into the darkness that Future Islands accesses, just as the best new wave and post-punk bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s did before them.
Track one, “Aladdin,” is one of the strongest songs on The Far Field. Immediately, it conjures up an atmosphere of pensive longing with the layering of synths. Then a prominent bassline slides in and vocalist Samuel T. Herring begins to sing in his distinctive voice, with all the urgency of a film protagonist during a climactic scene. Metaphors like “we were the candles that lit up the snow on dusty roads” sound haunting rather than melodramatic here. The simpler lines are delivered with equal passion and grace. When Herring sings, “Love is real/Our love was real,” a gorgeous violin melody playing in the background, the words, although somewhat trite-sounding in print, seem like a perfectly natural conclusion to the song. Overall, it does a wonderful job of setting the stage for the exploration of relationships that will follow.
Throughout the rest of The Far Field, all the elements that make “Aladdin” cohesive and atmospheric return. In a way, despite the fact that the infamously outspoken Morrissey once stated that there is “nothing more repellent than the synthesizer,” there’s a certain Smiths-like element to the record. Notable basslines abound, and the lyrics prize assonance, rhythm, and imagery over rhyme.
While the record uses plenty of figurative language to discuss topics like heartbreak, it doesn’t get into more explicitly personal territory until “Beauty of the Road,” when Herring begins by singing, “Left out on the road eight years ago.” That nugget of information is small, but it helps ground the songs, making them seem even more sincere. The album’s horizons expand further as it progresses. “Cave” incorporates a new sense of aggressiveness, made evident every time Herring sings, “I don’t believe anymore.” Then comes “Through the Roses”—a song that is mainly about struggling with suicidal thoughts, but also bears the mark of having been recorded the day after the 2016 presidential election. The lyric “We can pull through together,” repeated with conviction, is a relief to hear after Hemming spends the first part of the song making heartfelt confessions like, “I don’t know what to do/I’m scared.” Another don’t-miss song is “Shadows,” which features guest vocals from Debbie Harry of Blondie. Not only is it fitting to have an ‘80s icon on an album that draws such inspiration from the decade; her sharp, intense voice provides an intriguing contrast to Herring’s ethereal tone.
Future Islands has done it again. The Far Field is a haunting meditation on relationships that comes across as just as genuine as it is dramatic—true post-wave poetry.