Remember the name Samuel T. Herring. He may not look like much, but with his group Future Islands, he’s making pop music rapturous again. The phrase “80’s-style synthpop” may be a worn and tired calling card at this point, and “80’s-style synthpop meets gospel” may not sound much better, but bear with me. Future Islands is the best – and only -synthgospel group in the world; they will make you wish synthgospel was an actual thing instead of a portmanteau that I just made up. Seriously, though, this guy has the most amazing voice. He looks like Kevin Spacey’s less-traditionally-handsome hick cousin, but he sings like an angel. An angel whose voice breaks on the high notes because he smokes a pack a day and otherwise lives a hard lifestyle. In fact, Herring’s distinctive vocal crackle is a result of a medical condition called Reinke’s edema, in which the vocal cords fill up with fluid. He’s one of those rare performers who actually became a better singer as a result of smoking and other ‘chronic misuses’ of the vocal chords. I didn’t initially make the comparison, but I’m struck by it; if Future Islands sounds like any specific thing, it’s Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English. It’s elevating, propulsive synth music turned to intensely emotional ends, a weird chimera of sparkle and darkness.
(photo by John Hatfield)
Just as my parents’ generation have seen all of the dread of their own mortality made flesh in the still-shamelessly-strutting-it form of Mick Jagger, my generation has grown old enough to see its own It-Boys turn into men with wrinkles and midlife crises. Conor Oberst, for example, is pushing 40. The former teen prodigy used to exemplify the tortured feels of hyper-sensitive and hyper-articulate but poorly socialized post-adolescents. He had a quavering voice that seemed always on the verge of tears and the dreamy good looks of a baby owl. He got called “The New Dylan” a lot. Now he’s facing the challenge of somehow staying relevant now that his constituents are divorced, 15 pounds overweight, struggling to make their car payments and long ago given up on all their dreams. Fortunately, adulthood offers its own unique sources of angst, though tempered – if you’re lucky enough to actually have matured – by some wisdom and perspective. Oberst is in a position to segue into a really great second phase in his career, and he’s smart enough to see that. His last couple of albums have been surprisingly outstanding; clearly he still has a lot to write about, as a mature person, and I expect him to continue to lean into it. Maybe his best is still coming up, maybe he’ll find increasing inspiration from the perspective of age. Growing older is inherently embarrassing for a pop figure – besides seeing your own failings in the harsh camera glare, you’re also representing the failings of your audience. You have a choice though; you can put on your Peter Pan skinny pants and stubbornly carry on being exactly the same, or you can allow your ageing and decline to become part of your work. I expect Oberst to follow the leads of Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, who discovered their best creative years well past the hump of middle age and just really owned the hell out of being withered old men.
Father John Misty has reappeared, and if you thought he was acerbic before, buckle up. The honeymoon is over, and the singer takes aim at the world outside his boudoir. The last Misty album was, of course, the wedding album, and although it had some biting moments, it was essentially an ode to living happily ever after. That was two years ago, and perhaps the world hasn’t actually changed all that much, but the American landscape has been recast, to put it kindly, in a less flattering light. Josh Tillman casts his pen towards the way we live today, and the culture we’ve come to inhabit, and he finds very little to like. In the first minutes of the new album, he correctly identifies the root of all our problems in the biology of birth itself. Birth happens at great, possibly deadly, expense to the mother, and that’s just the beginning. The effort and compromise and sacrifice and danger of keeping alive a human infant – an unviable, helpless creature – are the basis of every structure of civilization, for good or for evil. The society that we’ve built, out of biological necessity, essentially to ease the burden of staying alive, is grotesque and absurd, barely redeemed by what we view as the highlights of human achievement. We’ve evolved and learned enough to mitigate most of the problems that plagued our ancestors; we can reasonably expect that our children will live to adulthood now, and we very rarely die of leprosy anymore. Yet the we refuse to let go of prejudices and superstitions formed centuries ago, we cling to traditions and social mores that no longer serve any purpose, we resist the march of progress every step of the way, all much to our own detriment. What do we even have to redeem us, as a species, except possibly our unique capacity to create shared experiences through art? Art gives us a collective experience of empathy and learning, of sharing our beliefs and feelings, the freedom to enjoy a crude music video prominently featuring Donald Trump and Pepe the Frog. In the end, we can admit, with a bitter spit, that each other’s all we’ve got.