I have a friend who is a full-time music engineer. He works on and creates music all day, every day. Recently he told me that even now—a decade into his career—good music and great lyrics bring him to tears. He told me if he hears the right song, it can sweep him away like he’s a dandelion on the wind. That’s beautiful. That’s poetic. That somehow says as much about him personally, as it does about Art (with a capital A) on the broadest scale.
I’m not sure I’m there. Jealous? Inspired? Yes! In the same place? Not sure.
Music used to trigger emotions for me as directly as a switch triggers a light. I remember taking a bath a decade ago while reeling from a breakup and listening to “So He Won’t Break” by The Black Keys
And you know the difference it makes
And you know all that it takes, is love, so he won’t break
and feeling so sad and the music hitting me so hard, I dunked my head under the water and didn’t want to come back up.
Years before that, I have memories of putting on New Found Glory, Good Charlotte, and Blink-182 and feeling so charged with a bonfire of emotion that I felt like I could do anything—even though I couldn’t even drive.
Every chapter of my life has had a song or record attached to it. More recently, like relay racers passing off a torch, my life can be charted by the passing of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend,” to “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, to Adele’s “I’ll Be Waiting,” to Rihanna’s “We Found Love”,” to Coldplay’s “Paradise,” to Sara Bareilles’s “King of Anything,” to Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song,” to Sara Jarosz’s “Green Lights,” and today, I simply cannot stop listening to “Broken Coastline” by Down Lake Silver. (Man, writing this down for the first time, I guess I like female vocalists… Not sure how I feel about Chris Martin reppin the pantheon of male singers for me. Well, at least Jay is in there.)
I can listen to any of these songs and they immediately pull me back into the trials, heartbreak, joy, adventure—feeling—of those periods. And a song that does that for me unlike any other is “Blue Ridge Mountains” (and really their entire self-titled album) by Fleet Foxes. Just two of those haunting, opening chords and I am teleported to a specific time and place. The time is 2009-2010 and the place is Oberlin College. Ohio has pretty serious winters. Oberlin isn’t too far from Cleveland and you get a bunch of snow off of Lake Erie. And I’m not sure there is an album + season pairing that feels more pure than Fleet Foxes and Winter.
When I put this album on, I can feel a wool sweater itching my elbows. I can smell smoke rising from my hot chocolate. I can see snow falling on an already white landscape.
“Blue Ridge Mountains” has such a specific, visceral memory tied to it, I can literally trace the memory back to a single day. I woke up in my single on the second floor of my old stone dorm in January. Snow was falling. It was a weekend during Winter term where’d I stayed at school for a project. Now, if you think college weekend’s were chill, winter term weekend’s were a whole other level. I had nothing to do. I mean, I truly believe I had nothing I had to accomplish that day. So I did the only thing that made sense: I put on Fleet Foxes and I got high. What a beautiful day that was.
I slowly showered, dressed, and listened to the music. My heart was slow and my soul was present. I put on my Winter armor—flannel, sweater, parka, scarf, gloves, hat, boots, and headphones. I walked up and down the whole campus that day as it snowed and snowed on the sleepy, deserted town. And I listened to “Blue Ridge Mountains” on repeat. I came across women making bread in a co-op and laughed with them. I found students who had built an igloo with fresh snow and we drank whiskey inside it. I sat with my friend by a fire in her warm off-campus house and read. And in the words of Robert Pecknold himself,
The river got frozen, the home got snowed in
And a yellow moon glowed bright, till the morning light
12 years have passed since Fleet Foxes came out and burst a four-part harmony-sized hole in what we knew to be and expected from contemporary Folk. And Fleet Foxes have returned from the Winter tundra with Shore. Much like its title, Shore takes you to the beach,
I’m gonna swim for a week in
Warm American Water with dear friends
Swimming high on a lea in an Eden
Running all of the leads you’ve been leaving
Sings Pecknold on “Sunblind,” the album’s second track and first ‘full’ song. The Fox Boys have exchanged their off-red flannel, Henley’s, beards, and watch caps for swimsuits and beach chairs. And God bless! This song is sunny as hell and probably my favorite on the album. I adore these chorus lyrics, which evoke my greatest desire as well as one of my favorite John Mayer lyrics, “a little bit of Summer is what the whole year is all about.” Indeed. Though I was surprised to discover the lyrics are not about Pecknold and Co. escaping a COVID-induced hibernation, but rather an homage to the Silver Jews American Water.
By far, my most treasured moment of the whole album is “Sunblind’s” pre-chorus:
I’m going out for a weekend
I’m gonna borrow a Martin or Gibson
With Either/Or and The Hex for my Bookends
Carrying every text that you’ve given
The fluttering vocal on “out” and “borrow” is vintage Fleet Foxes and the bubbling instrumentation brings such hopeful anticipation. And what lyrics! As I talk about all the time, when it comes to lyrics, give me a specific image, give me a visual moment that tells a story. The idea of going camping for a weekend and either you don’t have a guitar or you forgot it, so you have to swing by a friend’s house to “borrow a Martin or Gibson” so you can sing songs at night by the fire… Sublime.
Also I would be remiss to say, Elliott is my guy, so the Either/Or shoutout is a straight shot to my heart (and clearly I need to check out Richard Swift’s The Hex.) I CANNOT BELIEVE—I mean literally can’t believe—they only give us this drop of joy once in the song! Really guys?? Alright, they do return to this section later on but do not bring back the gleefully paired lyrics and melody. Sigh.
Once we return from the beachside camping trip that is “Sunblind,” I find myself with more questions than answers. I can’t decide if much like when I’ve listened to one of my own demos 1000 times so that I become attached and am subsequently unreceptive to the (objectively better) mixed version (we call that “demo-itis”), that perhaps Fleet Foxes early work holds such a deep place in my sonic-memory landscape that I am unwilling to adapt to this sunnier, more drum-centric record? Or if perhaps these songs, and particularly melodies, simply do not live up to the truly generational work of Fleet Foxes (2010), Sun Giant (2008), and Helplessness Blues (2012)?
(Side note, speaking of telling a whole story with specific imagery, one of my favorite lyrics of all-time is on the song “Helplessness Blues,” If I had an orchard, I’d work until I was sore, and you would wait tables and soon run the store. Man. You can’t do better.)
There are certainly charming moments sewn across Shore like shells on the beach. “Can I Believe You” sounds like you kept the best things about Imagine Dragons’ mastery of rhythmic propulsion and turned them into a neo-Folk band. I cannot wait to listen to this song on a drive for the first time. Also, I read that the choral voices at the end of the song are actually 400-500 people who sent the band clips on IG. That’s certainly damn cool.
“For A Week Or Two” sounds like the Fleet Foxes that I’ve been waiting to return to my snow-covered log cabin. And how do I know? Because they’re playing floor toms with mallets! Ha! The song is rich with the top-end harmonies that define the band. But I am just not sure it is as memorable as former standouts “Mykonos” or “White Winter Hymnal.” Also, I’m just gonna go there, do we need the piano? Sounds beautiful! 100%. But the boys have come this far with harmonies and fretted strings by the campfire. Maybe that’s enough?
“Maestranza” has a laid-back, almost Motown-like groove with a terrific hook. Pecknold confirms, “Musically, I think for a while it had something in it that had a disco or roller-skating kind of energy that I was trying to find a way out of, and then we found this other palette of instruments that felt less that way. I was trying to go for a Bill Withers-y thing.” Now, let’s give credit where credit is due, this entire album uplifts and pays respect to our recently lost American musical heroes, and here’s to that! Amen. But why are you trying to be Bill Withers? Bill Withers is Bill Withers. You’re Fleet Foxes. I love both! But we’re talking carrot cake and pumpkin pie here.
You know what, let me go big picture for a hot minute. Do you know what makes all truly special artists/groups great? Originality. Now—like all music—even when they take 80% of their sound from someone else, it’s being able to strike gold on that 20% of newness that moves the ever turning cultural-historic-sonic conversation forward like a giant wheel rolling over. It’s how you know it’s Rage 20-seconds into the song. It’s why you can feel Nile Rodgers loosening you up on a song you may not have even heard before. It’s why people in studio sessions say things like, “let’s do a Beck thing for the chorus” or “let’s go to a Frank Ocean vibe for the bridge.”
And when it comes to the greater Indie-Folk and Americana landscape, no group has brought more to the table of innovation than Fleet Foxes this century. Their use of modes provides such distinct colors and moods to their music, their utilization of timpani-like drumming gives their songs such grandeur and earthiness, and of course their signature harmonies… It’s truly special, important stuff. It’s that 20%! I understand that every group has to innovate to stay relevant, but I would argue that the Fox Boys have given us so much already, they’re in that rare air where they can keep going back to the well, while keeping everyone metaphorically hydrated.
In their review of Shore, Rolling Stone concludes, “The result is a kind of avant-garde soft-rock.” And while Pecknold and Co. clearly have the talent and relentless dedication to detail to pull this off admirably, I find myself wondering while that is exactly what I look for in a new Death Cab For Cutie record, perhaps it is not what I come Fleet Foxes for?
In 2030 when AOC is president and much of the world is unlivable, I am not sure I will be listening to Shore and having it kaleidoscope flip me back to 2020 in the way “Blue Ridge Mountains” takes me to that Oberlin Winter. But to Fleet Foxes’ credit, when it comes to 2020, maybe that’s for the best. I can say this for sure, Shore is sunnier than anything Fleet Foxes has done to this point and that’s probably what we need right now.