Co-authored with Eli Kan
In 2021, Julia Ducournau released a film. Known for her stomach-twisting body horror as seen in her 2016 debut Raw, the stakes for her cyborg-Cronenberg-sex-and-murder thriller Titane were high. Of course, she delivered on the horror but also, maybe more impressively, on the strangely moving found-family dynamics. There’s one scene where the protagonist dances in a room of firemen. Pink light colors the frame and the dancers move in almost imperceptible slo-motion. There’s a palpable sense of, if not joy, at least relief that comes from finding some kind of fucked-up and mangled puzzle piece to join yourself with. The song that seals this scene’s perfection is the expertly chosen “Light House” by Future Islands.
Future Islands played the main room at First Ave, almost a decade after their first Minneapolis show at 7th street. Opening for them was Chicago-based Deeper, a post-punk-like band who recently signed a record deal with Sub Pop, swapping their punkier sound for something a little more pop-ish. Deeper’s set was quick and they sounded tight, albeit a bit of a strange choice to pair with Future Islands. After their set, Future Islands took the stage almost immediately.
Future Islands is most recognized for their frontman, Sam Herring. A native of Baltimore, he grew up performing in cyphers under the literary-nerd alias Hemlock Ernst. His engagement with the crowd reveals this past. Even in a sold-out show, his movements are intimate and intentional. He writhes, wiggles, and jumps almost gymnastically throughout the entire performance. The lights flange with the music, settling into a mostly neon pink and blue palette which illuminates the sweat dripping off his face, and spittle flying with each word.
Despite being American, his singing voice is almost Shakespearean British as he enunciates the words like an actor, and growls like he might belong in Pierce the Veil.
Future Islands’ sound is synth pop, simply put. Out of all the instruments, the synth shines. Nearly every song relies on a bittersweet hook, tapped out by a deeply serious looking synth player. Needless to say, the synth guy knew the importance of his job.
In “Peach”, played about mid-set, they mixed tender guitar riffs and moody synth pads to create a melody that would be almost saccharine if it didn’t make you feel so sad. Layered into this short song are small moments of theatricality: a percussive rattle here, a looped riff played on a synth that’s Alphaville–style tone conjures images of a Midwestern middle school dance in 1983. Future Islands is not afraid to embrace this drama, even in the face of a world that might call it cheesy. They are deeply sensitive and serious about it.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t moments of joy, though. Before beginning the fast-paced “Vireo’s Eye”, Sam calls out “get ready to dance” with a smile so genuine you almost feel like you’ve never actually been that happy before. He performs the lyrics with such vigor that you can’t even make out what he’s saying. After perusing the lyrics, it’s not quite happy but not quite sad. If they are anything they are consistent.
The crowd consisted of millennials and Gen X-ers, the older of which tended to chill near the back with their Surly beers, chatting it up with long-time pals. The front of the venue held the crowd that needed this performance the most. A woman with an undercut who knew every lyric. A backwards cap, no sleeves, U of M-type dudebro who peered at Sam through a triangle he formed with his fingers and every now and then turned to face the crowd behind him, encouraging interaction at the behest of the Future Islands overlords. I think he truly was in love with Sam.
Nearing the end of the show, the band moved into slower songs. Before performing the final song of their set “Little Dreamer”, Sam gave the context in a heartfelt speech that felt like a conversation between you and your older brother. He mentioned how the song is hard for him to sing – and for a while he didn’t–because the person it’s about is no longer in his life. But essentially it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. He is grateful that his life is full of love, no matter the length.
As the song began, the colored palettes faded to a bright white stage light which revealed the mechanisms of the stage: all the ropes and pulleys used to create an effortless visage for the audience, even a stagehand or two looking at the band from the wings. He got down on one knee and performed the whole song there, looking past the audience. He finished the song and looked away, as the lights faded down, as if to mimic lyrics in the penultimate verse: “no more raging suns, only waning ones”. The show had ended.
Of course, they came back for an encore and performed their hit “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, an upbeat single from the 2014 album Singles. The crowd was at its most animated at this point, singing along as the lights beat in time to the music.
As a band name, Future Islands sounds name-generated on one of those sites Tumblr bots use to create hordes of followers, but knowing the earnestness of Sam we must also know that it is more meaningful than that. What is something that is not yet an island: a spindly leg of land, crisping off from the edge of a continent? In coming years it will be overcome with water, separating it from the mainland, but for now its whole and clinging desperately.
This is where Future Islands lives, on the precipice of life-altering change. It finds the drama, melancholy and ultimate power in these vignettes. Someone talks you down from a ledge; you watch your lover sleep for the last time; you agonize over someone who will never change. Sam’s determination onstage reveals what a lesser performer might be too embarrassed to. He cries, he looks the audience in the eyes, he hurls his body across the stage as if it’s the last time he might ever do this. He does this every night. You might even wonder how he can do it or if it’s “real”. Why would someone subject themselves to this and at the end of the show, beam?
If there’s any takeaway, there’s power in communication: for good, for bad, but ultimately that power is neutral. Sam’s music grapples with moments of misfire, like two morse-coding ships interfering with the other’s output, and ultimately feeling so lonely your last respite is to put it in a song. But thankfully we can share in that respite.