It was the day after The Late Show on American television. Emails began dropping in my inbox. OMG, did you see this video? Watch the singer in the group, people were saying, and how he dad-dances through the song. The guy’s low twisting as if stubbing out an imaginary cigarette or working up to a spot of limbo dancing. And watch him thump his chest like Tarzan and seemingly attempting to pull bits out of his T-shirt.
The clip, showing Future Islands performing Seasons (Waiting On You) on their US network television debut in 2014, went viral. The reaction to it centred almost exclusively on the visual aspect of the group, namely Samuel T Herring’s theatrical gyrations and gesticulations, which contrasted sharply with the static pose of his band-mates.
When the music stopped and Herring was becalmed, David Letterman strode on to the studio stage. Picking up on an audience response that went beyond the usual level of whooping and cheering, the host declared: ‘I’ll take all of that you’ve got!’
Future Islands have never looked back. The album from which the track came, Singles, surged up the US charts. Europe took to them too, proving the power of the internet. They recently appeared on Later, the Jools Holland vehicle on BBC2, with Herring throwing in some guttural growls on what remains their best-known number.
Lest that sounds like death metal, or even blues or soul, it should be said that Seasons is synth pop. ‘Like Joe Cocker fronting New Order’ is a description that tickled Herring and his colleagues, a bunch of thirtysomethings from North Carolina now based in Baltimore.
If pressed, I would have said I didn’t much care for synth pop. I’ve tended to see it as inauthentic – synthetic – and not dependent on creativity, talent or musicianship. On reflection, though, I love the beautiful, witty electronica of Kraftwerk. I like New Order, Human League and Propaganda. I can see merit in OMD and Depeche Mode.
It’s the preening banality of acts such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran that fuels my antipathy. Moreover, the use of synthesisers on a brilliant song such as Don Henley’s Boys of Summer makes it now sound dated. So I wasn’t predisposed to love Seasons, which Herring, perhaps tongue in cheek, labelled ‘post wave’ – a blend of post punk and new wave.
But what do categories matter when music moves you? The song starts almost hesitantly, as if it’s going to be a moody synth piece like Angelo Badalamenti’s wondrous theme for Twin Peaks. Then it springs into life, the feel still melancholic but with the synth and bass building the beat.
Herring’s soulful vocal kicks in, at first tentative. ‘Seasons change,’ he sings, ‘and I tried hard just to soften you.’ Straight away the listener knows it’s no ordinary love-dove confection. ‘The seasons change, but I’ve grown tired of tryin’ to change for you,’ it continues.
A lyric about people changing and growing apart hardly sounds profound. It was, Herring explained, an idea he’d developed (in an hour and a half) to explain the passage of time in a ‘rocky relationship’ which was ‘on and off for two and a half years’. Elaborating later, he said it was ‘about love, letting go, learning from your mistakes and always feeling that yearning for a certain love as time goes by’.
At other points in the song, the words are indistinct, yet it doesn’t matter. The fusion of the instruments, the vocal and the chord lurches is perfect, creating an atmosphere that lets you know it’s highly personal and managing simultaneously to be wistful and epic.
Don’t take my word for it. Seasons topped the critics’ poll for 2014 in the New York magazine Village Voice; it was Single of the Year in the NME; and it made the Top Ten in Rolling Stone’s songs of the year. It has been described as anthemic.
The Letterman video overtook the compere’s retirement announcement as the most viewed on the show’s YouTube page. But this a shimmering pop jewel – to be seen and heard.