One thing you should know about my process as a music reviewer is that I attempt to avoid external opinion as much as possible. It’s not just the avoidance of judgment of whether an album is good or bad, but also when the collective completely congeals on one side or the other. It is more difficult for me to say “X-album” is the worst thing ever with any level of objectivity when my full peer group has made that call already, and loudly.
Likewise, when this group of colleagues positively melts over a release, I too have to wait until their influence diminishes before I wade in. It’s too easy to let their mass adoration color my opinion, ease me to gloss over what might otherwise be a glaring problem, or worse, be quick to damn a project just because everyone else is doing it. I’m human, after all, and not immune to crowdthink.
That’s why I waited several years before I started listening to Fleet Foxes. I had to. The praise this band was getting was embarrassing, not just for its eponymous debut (2008) but for the follow-up Helplessness Blues (2011). Many cited a confused left-turn with their third disc, Crack-Up, which bowed in 2017, and still I waited. That was more a case of having felt burned out by the wave of folk/Americana that pelted me in those years. While frontman Robin Pecknold and company sound nothing like those who followed in that wake, it was nonetheless an unattractive proposition.
It was also not fair for me, as Fleet Foxes combines lovely music and classic tendencies in a manner I would have appreciated, as opposed to the thousandth bushy-bearded backwoods manboy crew with the marble-mouthed pubescent vocal squeak that was driving me mad around then.
When I found out that Fleet Foxes had dropped from virtually nothing their fourth LP, Shore, I chose to be one of the first to hear it, not the last. I’m grateful I did. Shore may go down as the record that best reflected the raging brain-bleed that is 2020 without ever stooping to its level. It’s quiet moments are indeed quiet. It’s brightest highs are euphoric. It’s heart seems to be fully cognizant of the suffering found in this year, but its voice skirts around a direct call out. The overall theme, if one could say there is one, is that the old world we knew is gone. You could blame politics, COVID-19, the wildfires eating up a quarter of the country and the battering windstorms punching down on another quarter, but the central message remains. This is not the new normal, but a temporary freakout on the path to the next normal, and we won’t recognize that one either. Take a breath. Hold on.
A standout track, “Sunblind,” calls out some of the dearly departed who won’t see that next turn around the corner: Richard Swift, Judee Sill, David Berman from Silver Jews, but instead of mourning the maximal adoration they deserved but did not receive, Pecknold sings of how he will do it. He’s going to swim in that “warm American water” and celebrate the art these individuals left behind. The mood of the piece is gentle but not sedate, cheerful insofar as a narrative like this could be, but neither morose nor overexpressive. It is a perfectly measured “thank you” as he muses “In your rarified air, I feel sunblind.”
Tracks like “Can I Believe You” and “A Long Way Past The Past” have a solid kick behind them. Other tracks like “Quiet Air/Gioia” float across the speakers but never with purposelessness. This is not meditation music nor escapist distraction, but it certainly will get you out of your head for a while, and maybe that’s why this record has arrived right now.
Look – in those moments when you see your family, friends, loved ones in the eyes right now, they’re stressed out. We are all stressed out. Our nerves are like old twine cords with threads splayed out at every turn. We are not well. Fleet Foxes’ Shore is a lot like a message to you, saying, “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to do the things we need to do. We’ll progress as we must. It won’t be easy, but we don’t need to think about that right at this moment…can we play a song for you?”
Shore may well be the one album from this year which you should ignore all the criticisms of – even mine – and just listen to.
You can find more of Shore here: https://fleetfoxes.bandcamp.com/album/shore