I assume Jay Leno keeps his car radio silent to listen to the sounds of the engine, but the right bit of music can still move an otherwise jaded David Letterman. His reaction to a Late Night appearance earlier this month by Baltimore-via-North Carolina synth-pop veterans Future Islands neared teenage joy, and it wasn’t hard to see why the weird intensity of singer Samuel T. Herring might have that effect. Herring leaned way into “Seasons (Waiting on You),” stalking the stage like a jungle cat, adding strangely silky dance moves to his uncomfortably intense stare. He pounded his chest with full, audible force. He reached out—as if through the TV—with the conviction that he could touch your couch. He occasionally dropped from his arch pop vocal to a low, demented growl, like a 60s variety show crooner who’s a stealth black-metal fan. Coming from some high-cheek-boned kid, these affectations might have been grating. But from Herring, who’s not a conventional heartthrob—a little too old, a little too stocky, normcore avant la lettre—it made a different kind of impact. My brain went spinning to find the right set of references: a Morrissey biopic with Ricky Gervais as star and costume designer? A cruise-ship hypnotist on mescaline? Marlon Brando as your dad? Where had this creature been hiding? Eight years into their career, Future Islands had their moment of “instant” viral fame.
The much-shared performance was to promote Singles, the band’s confidently named fourth album, their first for the grand old British alternative label 4AD. Compared to the spazzy synth-punk of their earlier work, there’s not a ton of “future” in this version of Future Islands. The beats stay on path with a nonjarring drum-machine lope. Their keyboards plant no mental image more exotic than a Ray-Banned 80s dude playing the keyboard. But you can’t slur them with the dreaded “chillwave” tag because Herring is anything but chill. The life-and-death theatricality of his delivery is the one combustible element in a sound that could use a few more. He mainly dwells on the most classic components of pop—love, loss, bittersweet remembrance—but he savagely wrings every drop of feeling from them, turning mellow drama into melodrama. It’s a solid if stridently unhip record. But there’s something about listening to it now, with the image of him preloaded in your head, that elevates it. To connect, the music really has to be coming from that guy.
There’s a hint of the Susan Boyle story to the way that Letterman clip went viral, the idea of an unlikely looking underdog finally given a chance. But that’s not the right takeaway. As a tirelessly touring band that spent years on their live show, Herring and Future Islands weren’t some unearthed raw talents, but professionals able to crush a plum opportunity. Hard work and a carefully cultivated stage presence—rather than the faint promise that those things might one day develop—can suddenly make you the toast of South by Southwest? In 2014? How novel.