Last year, Samuel T. Herring lent his voice to one the most memorable hooks on billy woods and Kenny Segal’s masterful Maps. “I can’t take you with me, but I be on your phone,” the Future Islands frontman – also a rapper who made his own joint LP with Segal, Back at the House, in 2019 – on ‘FaceTime’, capturing of the essence of a song about the pervasive loneliness and strange comfort of life on the road. There’s a kind of disassociation the mind enacts in order to reconcile the two, which is mirrored in Segal’s woozy, hypnotic production. Much of Future Islands’ latest record, People Who Aren’t There Anymore, their first since 2020’s As Long As You Are, digs into a similar headspace – having to stay strong for people who are far away, keeping it together in a world that’s falling apart, saving face – but the band’s taut, forceful brand of synth-pop is made for desperately clinging to the ideal, not the reality of sinking away. “Life is imperfect bodies/ And perfect sounds,” Herring sings on ‘Peach’.
With their increasingly refined sound, Future Islands tend to bury the imperfections, but not the yearning, until it’s clear they’re fuelling each other. The record revolves around the disintegration of a romance that’s not presented in any linear fashion, but Herring’s framing feels deliberate as soon as he introduces us to its early peak on the opener, ‘King of Sweden’. He’s long given up on “the certainty of love,” he admits on ‘The Fight’, a song whose emotion runs parallel to ‘FaceTime’: “Can I do it alone? dNow I’m back in my cell/ Back with myself/ Waiting on the phone.” But rather than drift back or accept defeat, he resolves to keep striving, even as the cracks in the relationship begin to show. On the more upbeat ‘The Thief’, he confesses, “I know I was gone/ But I was here all along/ Hidden in the things you keep,” while ‘Deep in the Night’ and ‘Say Goodbye’ radiate devotion. But it’s only so long you can repeat the same cycle before realizing you’re stuck in limbo and losing yourself in the process; People Who Aren’t There Anymore doesn’t just refer to those who, for whatever reason, leave, but the version of yourself who already has.
While it doesn’t directly chronicle the love that’s fading, the album is energized by the push-and-pull of hope and despair that are always in its orbit. Racing to the steady groove of ‘Peach’, which came out all the way back in 2021, Herring reaches for acceptance in an unforgiving world, one he’s quick to blame on the next track, ‘The Sickness’. By that point, though, he’s already faced the harsh truth on ‘Corner of My Eye’, a mid-album ballad set on the darkest nights when you realize “It all can leave you, in the blink of an eye.” You can’t pretend “nothing’s wrong” and “everything’s a mystery” when it’s staring you right in the face. “It’s perfect, so it’s done,” Herring sings. By which he means, it was, and it’s time to move on.
Though packed with anthemic singles that easily sit alongside their best, People Who Aren’t There Anymore feels more substantial for giving room to these moments of poignant clarity. Herring is an incredibly unique and emotive vocalist who can provide nuance just by winding his poetry around a song, but the richness and immediacy of the songwriting here speaks for itself; you get the sense that he’s processing grief in real-time, even if the songs took different forms over the years, and will continue to do so. “If you listen to other Future Islands songs, it’s me singing about a long past, or maybe a not-so-close past, but it’s like a reflection,” he said in a recent interview. “These were songs written in really emotional times, so there’s still some reckoning and understanding to be gained.” The album rewards you for staying with it, not least because the emotions never feel quite the same – and only then can you recognize the ones worth holding on to.