Fleet Foxes : Shore

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tallest man on earth henry st. review

Turn away no more:
Why wilt thou turn away
The starry floor
The watry shore
Is giv’n thee till the break of day.
-William Blake, “Introduction to Songs of Experience”

When Fleet Foxes made their introduction with a pair of indie folk releases in the spring of 2008, many listeners fell under the spell of this bearded folk band from the Pacific Northwest—understandably so. Singer/songwriter Robin Pecknold’s lyrics gave the impression of someone in constant awe of the world around him, vividly depicting sunrises and birds and mountains, and he sang in a golden tenor that not only imbued his words with a sense of pastoral wonder but harmonized gorgeously with his bandmates’ vocals. A far cry from the scrappy indie rock that was coming out of Manhattan and Brooklyn at the time, it elicited comparisons to the Beach Boys and CSNY songs that critics of a certain age had grown up with.

Neither the songs on Fleet Foxes’ eponymous album nor those of the Sun Giant EP that preceded it by a few months explicitly addressed childhood, but Pecknold’s lyrical fixation on nature and death felt, in a way, childlike—not juvenile or amateurish, but pure and innocent. You could imagine, for example, a children’s choir singing a song like “White Winter Hymnal” or “Oliver James” in between “You Are My Sunshine” and “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” That innocence, inevitably, soon gave way to experience, with Pecknold’s lyrics and melodies on Helplessness Blues demonstrating greater maturity and complexity. Six years (and one undergraduate degree from Columbia University) later, Fleet Foxes returned with Crack-Up, a record that sounded as overwhelming as Pecknold did overwhelmed.

Arriving three years after Crack-Up, Shore feels like both a response to and a progression of its predecessor. Pecknold said that Crack-Up, which took its name from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s three-part essay, was about emerging from isolation and re-establishing relationships; in contrast, Pecknold completed Shore without his bandmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But thanks to a long list of new contributors, including Grizzly Bear’s Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, Kevin Morby and Brazilian vocalist Tim Bernardes, Shore sounds anything but solitary. More notably, where Crack-Up was locked in conflict between I can’t go on and I must go on, Shore sounds all the more determined to press forward. It does not pretend that innocence can be regained once lost, but it does serve as a reminder that hope and joy can still be found within experience, be it through nature or music or people.

Now is as good a time as any to say that if Crack-Up isn’t my favorite Fleet Foxes album, then it’s certainly the one that resonates the most with me. I only became familiar with the band shortly after the release of Helplessness Blues, and even then I was more drawn to melancholy songs like “Montezuma,” “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Helplessness Blues.” But the group released Crack-Up the weekend I graduated college, one of those albums that came into my life with the perfect mood for the moment. Pecknold riddled his cryptic lyrics with internal dialogue and unspoken asides (“The band kicks the loner off the stage,” “Fuck this noise / Cut to June”), as if he were so lost in thought that it impaired his ability to connect with anyone else. And yet, that’s exactly why they connected with me: a twentysomething in between bachelor’s and master’s degrees, wrestling with a consumptive sadness that I found difficult to put into words, scared absolutely shitless at the prospect that my generation’s future was being dismantled before my very eyes. I won’t bore you with the finer details but suffice it to say that Crack-Up soundtracked a hot and anxious summer, and remains an album that I love even though I can be difficult for me to listen to it.

Shore follows an even hotter, more anxious summer, but it’s an easier album to listen to than Crack-Up. Its songs fall somewhere between Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues’ sunny folk-pop and Crack-Up’s dense, progressive compositions: “Can I Believe You” and “Young Man’s Game” are replete with the shimmering vocal harmonies that made us fall in love with Fleet Foxes in the first place—more than 400 of Pecknold’s Instagram followers lent their voices to “Can I Believe You”—and feel so tightly coiled that they practically burst with every pass of the chorus. Even the less-explosive songs pull off dynamic shifts with such aplomb that you might lose your breath at how opener “Wading in Waist-High Water” (sung by newcomer Uwade Akhere) seems to unfurl at the one-minute mark, or how effortlessly “Quiet Air / Gioia” transitions between its two parts. The Westerlies, the horn quartet who appeared on Crack-Up, return as key players on Shore, especially in the album’s fourth quarter, where fluttering trumpets set the pace for “Going-to-the-Sun Road” and “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman” as much as the rhythm section. These songs are intricate, but never untidy or overstuffed, always leaving adequate space for light and air to filter in.

That’s true of Shore’s lyrics as well, which don’t dwell in darkness as much as they did on Crack-Up. Pecknold has been open about his mental health since bringing Fleet Foxes out of hiatus four years ago—Crack-Up’s ornate arrangements did little to hide Pecknold’s emotional distress, and a year later he wrote candidly about suicidal ideation in an Instagram post—and though his lyrics on Shore allude to ongoing battles with depression and anxiety, they also suggest that the worst is behind him. “Feel some change in the weather / I couldn’t, though I’m beginning to” he sings on the (ahem) fleetly fingerpicked “Featherweight,” which ends with a hopeful declaration that “one warm day is all I really need.” The downcast “I’m Not My Season” turns “feelings are real but they aren’t reality” into a shoulder-rub of a song, while the titular question of “Can I Believe You” is an invitation, not an accusation—and when Pecknold asks “Can I believe you when you say I’m good?” it can interpreted as an admission of his own doubts or an attempt to mollify someone else’s.

Which complicates Pecknold’s claim that Shore is his least personal album to date—it feels more accurate to call it his least introverted, with Pecknold reflecting on how his life has been enriched by other people. He’s grateful for his friends, finding comfort in the fact that they’re connected by their shared experiences even when they’re apart (“Maestranza”) and praying for the safety of those working to make the world a better place (“Jara,” named for Chilean folksinger and activist Victor Jara). And he’s grateful for the work of other musicians: The sublime “Sunblind” name-checks Richard Swift, Elliott Smith, David Berman and about a dozen other departed songwriters, but the tone is one of celebration more than mourning, honoring those whose songs have inspired Pecknold to write his own. It’s only the most explicit tribute to his musical heroes, but it’s a thread that runs throughout the record—if you don’t hear Bill Withers’ sighing folk-soul in “Maestranza” or the wry empathy of John Prine in “Young Man’s Game” (an innocence-to-experience statement in and of itself) you’ll definitely hear the Beach Boys sample on “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman.” Prine and Berman are referenced again on the title track, Shore’s contemplative closer. “Afraid of the empty / But too safe on the shore / And ‘fore I forget me / I want to record,” Pecknold sings, “While I see it all.” I hear in these lines a sort of bruised, plainspoken warmth that I also hear in, say, “Everything Is Cool” and “Tennessee”—songs written from the perspective of men who sounded too old to ever be innocent, but found moments of happiness in their experiences. As Pecknold sings the last line, the band rises underneath him like the tide, swallowing his words in a crescendo of horns and percussion. He sounds like he’s made his peace with the uncertainty of the world he lives in, and is all the more committed to seeking out hope and joy within it. He sounds like he’s ready for the new season, and to embrace all that it may bring.

Label: Anti-

Year: 2020

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