Few people listen to an album’s songs in their original order anymore. The tracks of an album are picked up piecemeal from iTunes, blogs, or other more illicit sources, and are then sorted randomly into playlists and libraries. Most of the time, little is lost in the process, as artists have adapted to the idea that their album will not be played as it was packaged. But in the case of “On the Water,” the newest album by synth-pop trio Future Islands, the sequencing is absolutely essential.
“On the Water” follows a very strong thematic arc over the course of its 42-minute playing time. The album balances delicately between having a clear artistic direction and an engaging emotional accessibility. Vocalist Samuel T. Herring is able to treat the common theme of heartbreak with a rare sincerity and theatrical flair that is equal parts relatable and grand. Keyboardist Gerrit Welmers and bassist William Cashion provide a rich and dreamy soundscape over which Herring’s vocals thrive. The resulting album is pensive yet accessible.
The album is unambiguously about heartbreak and how one deals with the pain that follows. But what separates this album from other collections of feel-bad break-up jams is its sophistication in dealing with its theme. The songs are never self-indulgent pity-fests, and the band avoids this pitfall through their controlled sonic and thematic development over the album. In the wrenching early track “Before the Bridge,” Herring sings of struggling to come to terms with the end of love—“I can’t forget somehow / For to forget a love is to regret.” In the defiant middle track, “Give Us the Wind,” he triumphantly declares, “Give me the pen / Give me the sword / Let me cut away the darkness, and pin it to the wall.” The transition between these two lines reveals the welling strength and resolution represented in Herring’s lyrics. The vocals are supplemented with the tactful use of synthesizer and keyboard from Gerrit Welmers and a hauntingly melodic bass from William Cashion. The instrumentation is spare and tasteful—it revels more in the development of ideas than the quantity of hooks.
Herring’s characteristically theatrical vocal style serves him well on tracks like “Balance” and “Great Fire,” but at points it seems a bit over the top. He delivers his lines like a Shakespearean actor cursing fate, and as a result, songs like “Close To None” lose some of their potency. Herring’s strong vocal style occasionally overpowers his simple, sincere lyrics, as his delivery pushes the words from earnest to overblown and overdramatic. Fortunately, this is not a dominant trend, and the understated bass melodies from Cashion often help compensate for the dramatic vocals. In general, the group maintains their tasteful treatment of an often clichéd subject matter.
“On The Water” does not end with the same clarity or strength of resolve that is present in its midsection, but the record’s development is so well-structured that this deflation is clearly a stylistic choice rather than a loss of focus. The last track of the album, “Grease,” features Herring’s rumination, “This song won’t change a thing.” There is no clear resolution at the end of the album, nor any trite aphorism for similarly heartbroken listeners. Future Islands instead opt for a soberly uncertain ending, because as far as they are concerned, that’s how these things really end. Much of the power of this album lies in its willingness to embrace a lack of final clarity. The band could easily have ended the album on a defiant, optimistic note with “Give Us the Wind,” but such a quaint ending would hardly have done the rest of the album’s emotional build justice. Herring does not reward the listener with a denouement, tragic or comic, because despite his vocal theatrics, he has produced a beautiful and realistic take on heartbreak in “On the Water.”