As Long As You Are
Rock bands are, like our economies, cycles of growth and contraction. Artists will often let their sound sprawl before simplifying things, allowing the band members to tell interviewers how they’re ‘bringing things back to basics.’ There will be talk and promotional photos of acoustic guitars, and you’re left with the distinct impression the album was made around a campfire, perhaps some latent S’more hiss finding its way onto a single. But this ability and desire to simplify a band’s sound isn’t only the purview of traditional rock bands. Synth-driven groups have these feelings, too, and if you’ve ever wondered what that sounds like, Future Islands answers the question on As Long As You Are, an unplugged album for a band that requires electricity.
Which isn’t to say the American band doesn’t use rock instruments. Their line-up is singer Samuel T. Herring, Gerrit Welmers on keyboards and programming but William Cashion on guitar and bass, with drummer Mike Lowry joining the band as a full member. This line-up gives them a different kind of flexibility than if their music was purely programmed. And while 2017’s The Far Field was not what anyone would call lush soundscapes, As Long As You Are is a band, self-producing for the first time, turned even more inward, not focused on grooves but instead working with mood and lyrics.
Herring’s voice, which has a Bowie-esque flatness capable of Morrisey-level sadness, is, now and historically, the music’s focal point. In many ways, his voice mirrors the band, humanity that happens to sound electronic. But here it’s also what drives the songs, the music working deferentially beneath him to support his vocals. The beats and textures are there—this isn’t an a cappella album—but the spotlight is on Herring, Future Islands’ version of stripping off a layer or two.
That means that even on a poppier song, like “For Sure,” with a steady groove and some decorative keyboards for the verses, once Herring slams into the intense chorus (“I will never keep you from an open door / I know, you know / That’s how much I feel in everything you are / You know, I know”), it feels like the rest of the band is stepping back to make sure the listener
hears what he’s singing. The musical restraint also means a fair number of ballads and down-beat songs, until the album ends on “Hit the Coast,” the album’s most atmospheric track and the one with the fullest band sound.
It’s reductive to call this an 80s record. Future Islands uses the sonic palette associated with that time period, and Herring’s voice bears a similarity to singers from that era, but As Long As You Are has a contemporary, or perhaps even forward-looking, moderation, that reflects a mature band working with established tools, rather than a newer one playing with digital toys. It’s a song-driven album; the car just happens to be synth-pop.