On the Water is a full-on, heart-on-sleeve album. It leaves behind the moody atmospherics and elliptical lyrics that characterized Future Islands’ first two LPS, which thrived on the tension between Gerrit Welmers’ chilly, cinematic synth arrangements and Samuel T. Herring’s often unabashedly emotional lyrics. On the Water, by contrast, harmonizes those previously competing dynamics. Herring’s lyrics are as forthright as ever, but the arrangements from Welmers and bass player William Cashion are no longer as restrained — here, their work is alternatively sweeping or catchy, depending on the song. All this makes a good, but potentially polarizing album. Listeners who gravitated toward the mysterious elements of Wave Like Home and In Evening Air — the glacial synth work, the sometimes humorous lyrics — won’t find the same appeal here.
The 11 songs on On the Water are all about a venerable topic in pop music — the end of a relationship. And considering the band seems to be taking a number of cues from 1980s luminaries like The Cure and New Order, it’s an appropriate topic. Herring has a particularly dramatic voice; he generally sings in a lower register, but he can push his voice higher and give it a spooky, whispery quality, which works well for dramatic lyrics. “If things hadn’t changed,” he sings to an ex on “Before the Bridge,” “I would have buried you deep in my arms. / And if things had stayed the same, I would have carried you as far as the stars.”
The morose lyrics don’t weigh down the music, which bounces along on a heavy bass line and a series of synthesizer riffs. “The Great Fire,” probably the best song on the album, is a his-and-hers lament featuring guest vocals from Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner; they’re trying to break your heart, but the call-and-response of the chorus is one heck of an earbug. (And, of course, it also helps that Wasner’s voice is truly remarkable.) The band generally uses these pop elements to balance out the darker aspects of some songs, but on a few occasions, the joy is given free rein. “Balance” sounds like it was meant to pack dance floors, and “Give Us the Wind” like it was meant to inspire sing-a-longs.
Like I said, On the Water‘s smooth edges may inspire mixed reactions. But if we’re to judge an album based on its ability to accomplish what it sets out to do, there’s very little here to criticize. Future Islands clearly wanted to tug some heartstrings this time around, and in the respect, On the Water is an unqualified success.