On the Water is the third full-length release from Baltimore’s synth-pop aficionados Future Islands, and this new effort sees the group return with a far more reflective, mature, and introverted effort than anything previously offered. Unlike the group’s earlier work, which was typically catchy, quirky and upbeat, On the Water is deep, cool and dramatic, and times even borders on sombre and melancholy. Quite literally more downbeat, fans of Future Island’s earlier work may be disappointed – the entire album features an undercurrent of pulsating, visceral, coldly menacing synths and calm, impassive ambient segments with little of their previous irreverence or positivity.
On the Water is an ambitious statement however – the album is darkly grandiose, precise, powerful and captivating. The group have drawn far more on ambient artists and new wave synth-pop influences than ever before, and far fewer rock and indie elements are present. Bowie circa the Berlin trilogy, Brian Eno, OMD, and The Pet Shop Boys are all very heavily present in the music, from the choices of synth and guitar timbres to the deep, staccato vocal phrasing. The result is that Future Islands sound unlike anything contemporary, but conversely, the group are not necessarily doing anything new or innovative either. Where before their work was more an experimental fusion of past and present, 80s’ synth-pop and currently alt-indie, with On the Water Future Islands mostly sound like an 80s throwback band. Each timbre replicated is catastrophically accurate and representative of its 30-year-old influences, so much so that at times the music is simply a pastiche – a replication of music past. On the Water is not a 2011 reimagining of late 70s/early 80s synth-pop, and as such it often feels like an exercise or project rather than true artistic development.
There are some interesting moments, however. When tracks have more of an ambient vibe rather than a synth-pop vibe, the music can be quite curious and beautiful. These soundscapes, built from music, samples and found sounds work well together and sound fresh. Indeed, there does seem to be more of a focus, especially in these ambient sections on how the music is constructed than Future Islands’ previous work. Tracks such as ‘Tybee Island’, ‘Where I Found You’ and ‘Close to Me’ almost have an almost pastoral, ambient collage vibe at times. The also sound more modern and innovative.
On the Water has some very nice moments, and at times the quieter, colder, enigmatic vibe works, adding to the Future Islands catalogue of musical styles. The lyrics are also very nice throughout, offering quietly romantic and aspirational sentiments about life and love. But one does have to ask the question of what exactly the band are trying to achieve with this effort. It is far less interesting or developed than their previous work, with only small elements of curiosity. Superficially the album might seem more serious and mature, but in reality the album offers little artistic or musical progress. It is instead a pastiche, and ultimately a fairly mediocre one, with only hints of Future Islands’ usual personality or charisma.