Many of the songs on People Who Aren’t There Anymore changed meaning before even coming out. Samuel Herring started writing lyrics for Future Islands’ seventh album shortly after the release of their sixth, 2020’s As Long as You Are, amid the isolation of Covid: a period that trapped the Baltimore synth-poppers’ singer a hemisphere away from his partner, Swedish actress Julia Ragnarsson.
Then, midway through the process, the couple split.
As a result, People… is a soundtrack to growing separation. Lyrics like those of bouncing single ‘The Tower’ – “I lie, tell myself it’s OK when it’s not quite” – aren’t about what Herring thought they were several years ago. What he assumed was the voice of a man missing his beloved was, in fact, that man admitting to ignoring the hallmarks of an impending end.
Herring has likened Future Islands’ albums to chapters in a story, and, as if narratively, the expanse between the frontman and his former love only widens as the album proceeds. Song four – ‘Say Goodbye’, with its tick-tocking percussion – laments the time differences between the US and Sweden: “If I’m up past midnight, might have a chance to say good morning, right before I cut the light.”
By ‘Iris’, there are admissions of ideological distance as well, of “buried anger” creeping into view when “irises grow”. Lastly, ‘The Garden Wheel’ reflects on what was lost amid allusions to grafting and struggling for a decaying companionship: “We worked the earth so much, it turned to dust.”
It would have been easy for Herring and Future Islands to sonically drag the listener into these throes. However, in interviews, the vocalist has espoused the virtue of moving on. “When you’re young, everything is outward instead of inward,” he told NME last year, “but I want to have more acceptance of my part in things as well. I find that the journey is important to share.”
In that vein, although it’s threaded with the story of a degrading relationship, People… is still a tapestry of danceable synthpop. Gerrit Welmers’ keys bubble to life on opener ‘King of Sweden’, before being joined by the upbeat march of Michael Lowry’s drums and William Cashion’s bass. Herring’s voice tickles the ear in much the same way it did ten years ago when a performance of ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’ on Letterman catapulted the four-piece to viral fame.
Even the mellowing moments of People… taste, at worst, bittersweet. ‘Give Me the Ghost Back’ is a sonic comfort blanket, such vocalisations as “How quickly we become the things that we despise” blunted by the warmth of the synths and an increasingly happy-go-lucky pace. The aforementioned ‘Iris’ barrels forth with clamouring percussion and layer upon layer of shimmering textures, while ‘The Sickness’ is too beautiful to ever be a downer, its melodies dancing atop a bedrock of crunched guitar.
Future Islands recognise loss on album seven yet healthily refuse to be trapped in its quagmire. Instead, the band continue in endlessly immaculate form. And that can only mean a future for Baltimore’s best, which is brighter than their immediate past.
Photo credit: Frank Hamilton