Our performance of the year (a really late goodbye to 2014’s music)
I found Future Islands for myself by total accident. The whole thing was serendipitous. I hardly ever watch Letterman. I think that night I tuned in because I had heard Marc Maron, or somebody else, talk about Letterman’s legacy—maybe it was Bill Simmons who said it. I came in right as Future Island started the sweeping, melodramatic, beautiful song “Seasons (Waiting on You)”, recently named Pitchfork’s song of the year. Future Islands’ album “Singles” has been featured on a number of “best of” lists, including our own.
The performance on Letterman is the best version of the song. It might be Letterman’s most relevant moment of 2014. It’s the best performance of a song I’ve seen this year, perhaps ever. Try to turn it off. Seriously, watch it now, and try to turn it off.
I watched this, engrossed, captivated by lead singer Samuel T. Herring. That performance, man, he was a gravitational force.
The first thing you notice is the funneling beacon of awkward dancing: all elbows, knee caps, and foot slides. You start to watch for the weirdness. The harsh blue neon lighting. The guy dancing who looks like a dad cutting the rug at a wedding. But 42 seconds in Herring hints this isn’t just awkwardness. His voice takes a gravelly turn, like a surprise belch, but it’s all in stride. And the song, the performance, the whole process of watching this band turns into something more nuanced, passionate and dark.
Later Herring smacks against his chest like some type of warrior. He tells the audience people change, but some never do. Watching this, my first experience with the band, I felt that. The physical embodiment of the pain you inflict on yourself through relationships. I know I’m probably putting too much on this performance, and perhaps Herring was just trying to make a splash on national television. But that’s what I felt.
The whole song, the performance, the whole thing stays moving. The camera bobs and weaves, struggling to keep in line with the herky-jerky motions. And yeah, sometimes the singing is off-key, but does that matter?
Two minutes, eight seconds into the song you realize you’re watching something completely different. Herring sings the lyric, “But I been hanging on you.” But he groans it out in a guttural, zombie moan. Herring’s face contorts into a Brando-esque posture of incredulity. He pulls down at the collar of his shirt and his body goes limp. The somewhat vague lyrics pull into tight focus. The sheer weight of this song pulls you down. We’ve all been hanging on to someone, we’ve all be waiting and, sure, singing that in perfect pitch would be nice. But to spout the bile of the heartbreak and have the guts to go at it full bore on national television—that’s something else.
At 3:07 Herring throws his hand forward toward the crowd, eyes slanted closed and begging for someone. Then he turns into some kind of monster, like the growl of a death-metal band gone wrong. He talks about craving and dips, sliding around, his lips pursed and staring creepily forward. I still don’t know what to make of it, but it drew me in like nothing else I’ve seen. I think it all speaks to the odd game of being human, that we only control so much. That we rely on other people to make our lives right. And that one moment we might sweetly ask the world for a favor, and the next we cut into some fit of angry posturing. Or maybe I just like anything that is weird, anything that takes a chance and is a bit off-kilter.
I still can’t believe I found this band, and this song and this performance by accident. I flicked onto it, the neon blue light pouring out of my television and my eyes pried open wide because I’d never seen a thing like it. Seriously, it immediately stuck with me.
Letterman goes onto the stage to end the program for the night after the legendary performance. He looks truly happy, stunned by the fortune of what happened on his show.
“Nice going,” Letterman says through his crooked lisp. “How ‘bout that.”
“I’ll take all of that you got,” he says.
Me too, Dave.