It takes all of five songs for Samuel T Herring’s checked shirt to transition from ironed fabric to sodden dishrag. Future Islands’ frontman spends much of this first night of the band’s UK tour looking as though he has just crawled on to a beach after a boating accident – wild-eyed, gesticulating, drenched. To list Herring’s many antics over the course of the set feels like a cheap shot, reducing to mere spectacle a complex and footnoted ritual of menace, suffering, libido and joy. But it all goes irrevocably soggy on A Dream of You And Me – a song from 2014’s Singles album – when he starts Cossack dancing, and then licking his own arms. After some fine robot moves in the encore, Herring jokes that he hasn’t attempted them on stage since about 2004.
Herring’s reputation as one of the most arresting frontpeople in a generation was cemented during the course of one fateful TV broadcast in 2014. When the band played their single, Seasons (Waiting on You), on the Late Show With David Letterman – Herring staring down the camera, swivelling his pelvis – the internet quickly did what the internet does: turned his acute physical theatre into a meme.
It’s possible the internet hadn’t been to enough punk shows, where hitting yourself in the chest from a surfeit of emotion is a more common occurrence. But, overnight, Future Islands filled a void that no one had quite realised existed: for a version of the Killers fronted by a man who looked as though he could actually kill somebody.
Putting Herring in a specimen jar proved difficult, though. Now spearheading a wave of ordinary-joe intensity, he had actually been a teenage hip-hop head – keyboard player Gerrit Welmers and bassist William Cashion brought the vintage synths and Peter Hook basslines to the Islands. Herring’s approach to lyrics still owes a debt to the rhythmic assonances of rap, and, additionally, to the works of Theodore Roethke, a mid-20th century poet in whose writing the natural world loomed large.
Herring was clearly nobody’s jester; nonetheless, one-hit wonderdom beckoned. The bogglers mostly stayed, because Future Islands’ songs were hopelessly romantic, and Herring’s open-hearted take on outsiderdom came hand-in-hand with tunes – bright, starry-eyed, muscular compositions that served as a counterweight to the frequent bleakness of Herring’s lyrics. Glasgow’s storied Barrowlands is an enthusiastic place much of the time, but there is something more in the room tonight – no silence at all. Pauses between songs fill up with a crescendo of whooping and stomping, as though the crowd were trying to towel Herring off with their affection.
The Far Field, Future Islands’ fifth album, came out at the start of April. It reacts to the pressure of the runaway success of its predecessor by not straying far from the blueprint that earned the Baltimore band their cult status. What the music lacks in variety, it makes up in nuance.
If you were DJing, you could easily mix Future Islands half a dozen ways. Thanks to the masterful drumming of Michael Lowry, they boast a disco-y, punk-funk undercarriage that recalls LCD Soundsystem, another band in which an intense guy holds court over synthesisers. Sometimes, the linear blooping recalls early Depeche Mode – and Glasgow’s own Chvrches.
Every polychromatic wash unleashed by Welmers sounds a little like the opening bars of Born Slippy (Nuxx) by Underworld. Their road songs have an all-American, heartland appeal, exemplified on the new album by Ran, a song with roughly equal mileage of hope and sorrow.
As the set progresses and Herring’s shirt starts to actually drip, though, the music grows a little more unhinged, as though coming to meet him halfway. The song that inaugurated Future Islands’ second act, Seasons (Waiting on You), has had a little touch-up. It’s hard to pinpoint what has changed, but there’s a subtle unfamiliarity to it that makes you think Future Islands might be conscious of the dangers of repeating themselves too much.
If anything, their new songs have grown bleaker. “I don’t believe any more,” croons Herring desolately on the standout Cave – just one of the Far Field songs in which the absence of love is an unbearable wound that no amount of validation can suture.
It is a cliche of band membership that the more your innermost emotions find an audience, the more of a beating your own personal relationships take. Herring’s latest heartbreak is one mover of The Far Field – named, like a previous Future Islands album (2011’s In Evening Air), after a poem by Roethke. Somewhat inevitably, the band have just announced another huge American tour.