It seems that every few months, stories of yet another must-see, completely crazed live band cycle through the music press. These acts are inevitably varying incarnations of some zany spirit, from the group of wild-haired gypsies and old-timey, back-porch stompers to ecstatic dance-party engineers and gesture-obsessed heavy metal dudes. On occasion, these acts stick around and grow, their blazes on stages actually catching into some sort of sizable crowd and career. There's Gogol Bordello, for instance. But more often than not, these hyperkinetic units seem to swing through town a few times and, soon enough, disappear completely, like some huckster who woos a new lover at every stop only to vanish in a cloud of ignominy.
In the past decade, North Carolina has produced at least three such see-them-live acts—the now very famous Avett Brothers and two relative youths, Megafaun and Future Islands. Rather than run themselves sweating and screaming into the ground, all three learned over the course of several years and albums how to harness their energy and charm for more than sold-out shows; they've all managed to make sophisticated and finessed albums that nod to that upstart insurgency while building something that feels a little more like the start of a legacy. On the Water, the third full-length from Future Islands, slows and stabilizes the band's formerly relentless dance beats and gets very serious about the heart, hope and the entirely unforgiving quest to make it into adulthood.
On the Water is not the best Future Islands album. That would be last year's breathless In Evening Air, at least in the reductive senses of how much momentum it is able to create and maintain from start to finish and how many indelible hooks it manages to land in its runtime. Rather, On the Water sometimes squanders energy with overly indulgent interludes and introductions and very occasionally reaches beyond the band's means. "Tybee Island," for instance, finds frontman Sam Herring crooning like Scott Walker above an amorphous swell of field recordings and keyboard drones; the experiment works with the album's spirit, just not in execution.
But On the Water represents a crucial step for Future Islands because it proves that they can function beyond their own excitement. That is, they can write perfectly deep songs that give young adult worries the gravitas they deserve—and make them sound both broken and beautiful. On the opening title track, Herring invokes God and fire and the future to defend his romance; on the coruscated but sad "Where I Found You," Herring synchronizes the good memories with the bad, suggesting that even the worst bits of whatever relationship he's just wasted weren't enough to wipe away his feelings. In spite of consecutive albums now about the harm that happens when people get hurt (or maybe because of it), he chants "Don't let today push out the past." Herring's ambiguity here is intriguing and dangerous; he's not looking to suffer, he implies, but he's not above or beyond it, either.
Because it occasionally stalls, On the Water feels, on the whole, a little listless, especially compared to the rush of enthusiasm the band has supplied in the past and largely still delivers onstage. But about half of these songs—the wrenching duet "The Great Fire," the ode to resilience "Balance," the lovelorn epistemology of "Before the Bridge"—are as good as Future Islands have ever been. On the album-ending "Grease," Herring gets melodramatic over a warped bassline and a tambourine that's played with unending lethargy. This is Future Islands' anthem for on-tour tedium—they load in, play the set, load out and lose their minds on the highways. "I'm growing old," he sings. "I was a boy not long ago." It's an apt end to a coming-of-age album that, in spite of its flaws, ushers Future Islands beyond a simple live spectacle.