Fleet Foxes’ New Album ‘Shore’ Is The Warm Hug You’ve Been Longing For
The closest the band have come to replicating the simple, elegant pleasures of their debut.
May 1, 2012 was the day that everything changed for Fleet Foxes — the day their drummer, the musician once known as J. Tillman, dropped his debut, a work of shifty-eyed paranoid folk released under the name of Father John Misty.
Like the band that he had once toured with, Tillman had been raised on Fleetwood Mac and weirdo legends like Sibylle Baier, and had hit the mainstream alongside other now mostly forgotten luminaries of the freak folk scene — Devendra Banhart, Cocorosie. But unlike his contemporaries, Tillman suffused his art with irony, and arch world-weariness. He sang about castration, emasculation, and the end of the world.
That first Father John Misty record was more of a critical hit than a commercial one — Tillman wouldn’t become firmly saturated in online music communities until the release of his next record, the goopy and ecstatic I Love You, Honeybear. But still, he had already changed everything, making detachment seem like the logical endpoint of the freak folk movement, and anything else seem limp and uncool.
No band was more immediately and profoundly affected by this shift than Fleet Foxes. After all, their entire sound up to that point had traded on sincerity. Their breakout hit was fashioned on madigrals; their entire aesthetic circled around cool winter breezes, scarves, and Wes Anderson movies. Helplessness Blues, released one year before Father John Misty’s debut, was an album to cook mushroom ragu to. When irony hit, they didn’t have a chance.
And so they disappeared, taking a half a decade hiatus during which songwriter and frontman Robin Pecknold enrolled at university, listened to his favourite records, and kept largely to himself. The band only tried to adopt to the new state of the scene years later, in 2017, with Crack-Up. That album, their third, stayed lyrically sincere while letting everything else turn to post-modern slop — on ‘Cassius, -‘ Pecknold does his best Bon Iver impression, letting the music shift in and out of focus around him.
It didn’t really work. The album was somehow too full and too empty at the same time, suffused with car advert-crescendos and aimless breaks for noodling. Worse still, it made it deeply unclear where the band had to go next. They had thrown everything against the wall; what was there left for them to do?
The answer, as it turns out, was to go right back home. Their fourth album, Shore, released this week, is a return in more ways than one — their first record in three years, sure, but also the closest they have ever come to replicating the simple, elegant pleasures of their debut. Irony be damned, Fleet Foxes are back.
Fleet Foxes Are For Real
The most obvious counterpoint to Shore is Taylor Swift’s folklore, released earlier this year. Both albums were surprise releases; both are suffused with melancholy; both flirt a little with pop choruses before retreating, and taking security in bare, spiderweb-thin instrumentals. But, perhaps surprisingly, Shore is the sunnier album. While folklore made much of isolation and heartbreak, Shore draws its energy from other people, glittering with human contact and love.
That’s not to say that this is a record unprepared for the reality of the world in which we live, one seized by ideological clashes and torn asunder by a pandemic. ‘I’m Not My Season’ is soaked in longing like an old rag in gasoline, while ‘A Long Way Past The Past’ frets itself into tight circles. If Shore is about anything, it’s about counterfactuals; the way things could have been if we had all done better, tried a little harder, loved each other a little more.
But even when Shore edges towards the dark, as on the tower-toppler ‘Can I Believe You’, there is always an undercurrent of hope to proceedings. Mostly, that’s because of the textures of Pecknold’s voice.
On Crack-Up, he pushed his tones all over the place, muttering and mumbling to himself like a man pushed to the edge. Here, he sticks to the register that OG Fleet Foxes fans will know him for. ‘Young Man’s Game’, a frothy, antic tune that eventually breaks into a chorus held in place by a children’s choir, is the best demonstration of what he is capable of — his voice, rich and thick, assembles into the middle of the track in a honey-like heap.
The album wouldn’t work without that lightness, if for no other reason than it’s surprisingly long — at 15 tracks, most of which sit around the four minute mark, it’s the most self-consciously epic Fleet Foxes record yet. But the time flies by, particularly when one listens to it in optimal conditions: sitting on a balcony or in the sunshine, letting the thing play in its entirety, moving back and forth like the tides.
“‘I’m Not My Season’ is soaked in longing like an old rag in gasoline.”
After all, it’s only when taken as a whole that it becomes clear how much of what makes Shore shine are its quietest, most gentle moments, when the choruses begin to fade, and the listener can soak themselves in these big, humming gaps.
On the title track, the record’s last, Pecknold sings just above a whisper. But still, the whole world lives in his voice — sad, and hurt, and hopeful. “Now the quarter moon is out,” he sings, saxophones groaning around him, and then Shore goes quiet.
Shore Knows About What Has Hurt You
This year has been rich with records that express interior worlds; albums about retreating inwards, and trying to find new purpose. Shore is another entry in that canon — a new masterpiece to squirrel yourself inside of during a year of upset and pain.
But there is a simplicity here to keep things distinct; a simplicity and a commitment to truth-telling. Shore contains no jokes, no puns, no ironic, self-referential barbs.
It’s the sound of a songwriter who has once again discovered how freeing it can be to speak one’s own truth, however trivial it might be. “One warm day’s all I really need,” he says on ‘Featherweight’, barely singing at all, a flickering smile in the corners of his voice.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.