Consistency is the name of the game for Future Islands  and People Who Aren’t There Anymore simultaneously proves that the four-piece is more than able to smoothly build upon their trademark synthpop sound.

Release date: January 26, 2024 | 4AD | Official Website | Bandcamp | Instagram | Facebook | X

Yes, yes – I too had succumbed to the Future Islands Letterman live performance craze back when it was relatively fresh in people’s minds. And yet… Never would I have imagined that, almost a full decade later, I would be here reviewing their latest seventh full-length People Who Aren’t There Anymore.

Admittedly, the Baltimore synthpop act was never a band I followed or constantly craved for, mostly due to the fact that the genre they’re housed in was and is not exactly within my wheelhouse. Still, there was always something about them that gravitated me towards sporadically giving Singles various spins and being left satisfied after it. This pattern continued until their 2020 release As Long As You Are, a record that further cemented my appreciation for the four-piece and their slick embrace of both vibrantly colorful music and their more subdued, but never less impactful emotional reveries. It is with People Who Aren’t There Anymore, however, that ultimately sold me on them.

There’s nothing on this record that’s stylistically any different from their previous offerings. Here, we’re once more treated with blissful synthpop cuts and crooning ballads – sounds that they have already mastered in seamless fashion. The wizardry actually comes from the band’s knack of digging deeper and candidly reveling in new sonic and thematic perspectives. Seriously, you would think that, after having put out seven albums, Future Islands would seem stale or bloated, and that cannot be further from the truth. The secret is really not much of a secret, too – it all goes down to the band always being caught in the ebbs and flows of life and somehow weaving its remnants into open yet succinct portrayals of longing and wander. Simply put: an earnestness you’ll unlikely come across with other bands.

“King of Sweden” sets the stage with playful keys complemented by airy synths and a sharp backbeat that well up towards a highly spirited chorus, wistfully touching upon a lost love with an overarching deep appreciation of what was once. The band never fails to have a way to channel these imperfect but very real qualms through the routinary and youthful daydreams, now supported by a lively production that gives the instrumentation a pop rather than merely giving a glossy finish to them. The same yearning follows through on the bass-heavy “The Tower” and on the velvety cut “Deep in the Night”, both locking in on waiting or grasping for a semblance of hope that seems to border on the fringes of the imagination more and more as time passes by.

Peering closer at it, the passage of time is a clear thematic thread on People Who Aren’t There Anymore. Frontman Samuel T. Herring comments on the album:

…Some of the songs grew and, over time, changed meanings, even within the time of the writing and recording of the album. Some of the songs are still revealing themselves because the back half of the record was written after a devastating period for me… These were songs written in really emotional times, so there’s still some reckoning and understanding to be gained…

The meanings behind the songs are written in such a way that they seek new experiential avenues to ponder to as the record progresses. Yes, the album title is direct enough for one to come to the conclusion that it is centered around long-distance relationships, most notably on songs like the contagiously groove-powered “Say Goodbye”, but take a step back and a kaleidoscope of events, desires, and connections begins to unfurl.

“Corner Of My Eye” is the first song that’s personally striking in that regard, and one where Future Islands begin to truly shine musically. A thank you letter to the past – the perceived swiftness of childhood immediately comes to mind – the track fuses nostalgia and shoegaze-tinged arrangements to create a cathartic sendoff of a chorus that gives the it is what it is sentiment a run for its money. There’s acknowledgement of pain but also of gratitude when reminiscing (‘I found peace, but can’t go back/Isn’t it so sad?‘), ultimately settling in on a cautious acceptance that those times may never return (‘It’s perfect/so it’s done‘). “Iris” delivers an instant classic of a raving indie pop cut with a dark undertone that’s even surprising coming from them, speaking of holding bitter resentment towards others (hinting at generational trauma in particular), and the way the song is performed by the band is just remarkably affecting.

But if the trees are dying, are we not dying too?
The damage stretching limb to root
Can we break the chain, begin to chew?
Begin to choose?
‘Cause if the seeds are rotting, are we not rotting too?
And if the leaves are lying, are we not lying too?

“The Sickness” continues the stride sporting out one of the band’s strongest songs to date. The anguished cadence on the vocals is heart-wrenching enough; add to that the sheer chemistry between each member and you’re left with an impassioned display of grief through delicate synths and a sweeping beat holding it all together. The line ‘our wilderness, now sober‘ especially hits hard – of course, the title and some of the verses allude to the COVID-19 lockdown and how the pandemic dwindled relationships and distorted time itself, but the line also carries a certain solitude in the same way that the quietude that arises out of losing someone does, or the unnerving stillness that comes with dissociation. The closer “The Garden Wheel” finishes off the record as a quaint track that reflects on the nature of losing and gaining – beautifully capturing the essence of People Who Aren’t There Anymore.

The vulnerability to lay out the freshest of scars onto each of these songs, without any leeway for them to develop and be properly understood, is precisely what makes People Who Aren’t There Anymore so great and resonating. Future Islands‘ longevity stands on dwelling in emotions as they are and with all their faults, uncovering universal inner turmoils while also having the tact to illustrate them as real and familiar. As a result, their trademark synthpop sound continue to strive with a confidence they are only able to pull off. I’d like to end this review with some choice words by keyboardist Gerrit Welmers – words that pretty much encapsulates the spirit of People Who Aren’t There Anymore and, consequently, the milestone the band was able to hit with it:

I’m trying to crack the code of what happens when you’re turning 40 and you’re still in a band. Are you capable of still making interesting music?’

And I think the answer is obvious.

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