Like the calm at the eye of the storm, Fleet Foxes’ fourth studio album observes our chaotic reality with a soft, fresh sound and ethereal lyricism.
For Robin Pecknold, Fleet Foxes’ lead singer and song-writer, songs are ‘perfect angels in the snow’. Delicate and flawless, they are impressions left behind by the legends who write them. On ‘Sunblind’, a stand-out track from his latest project, Shore, he pays homage to his musical heroes, namechecking Elliot Smith, John Prine, Judee Sill and Jeff Buckley among others, and to music itself for accompanying him through a frantic world.
The title is apt: while Fleet Foxes’ last album Crack Up surged and crashed with anxious turbulence, Shore shimmers and fizzes like the fringe between sea and land. Pecknold and the band sound more at peace on this record than they have since their debut LP, but rather than a return to pastoral folk, Shore is their most immediate and pop-infused project to date.
Songs like ‘Maestranza’ and ‘Featherweight’ bubble softly with crisp, delicate instrumentation, while, on other tracks, subtlety is more or less abandoned. ‘Can I Believe You’ explodes with a bright, punchy riff and a chorus of voices that Pecknold edited together from hundreds of clips sent to him by his Instagram followers. The rich, soulful ‘A Long Way Past the Past’ has a warm 70s feel to it, but Pecknold explicitly rejects nostalgia on this track, claiming ‘rebirth won’t work like it used to.’
And, lyrically at least, the album is certainly rooted in 2020. Despite adopting a calmer tone than on Crack Up, Pecknold keenly observes and reflects on the state of our world. On ‘Featherweight’ he pleads, ‘May the last long year be forgiven/ All that war left within it’. It’s a sentiment most of us surely share. But Pecknold concludes: ‘And we’ve only made it together/ Feel some change in the weather/ I couldn’t, though I’m beginning to.’ The line teeters ambiguously: is this hope on the horizon or the literal change in the climate as we sow the seeds of humanity’s extinction?
The album’s lush choral harmonies lend it the same warmth Fleet Foxes have infused into all their projects thus far, and the strange percussive dance groove that closes off ‘Gioia’ is proof that the band are still prepared to take risks with their sound. Despite this, the record often suffers from rather thick, overwhelming instrumentation; within the mix sounds mash together, sacrificing intricacy.
Providing a welcome break from this on the second half of the track list is ‘I’m Not My Season’, a stripped back acoustic folk song with a simple, Dylan-esque melody. On the opposite end of the spectrum, ‘Going-to-the-Sun Road’ is full and symphonic, golden horns strengthening it like a backbone, while acoustic guitars quiver with vulnerability. This track also features a Portuguese verse sung by Brazilian singer and songwriter, Tim Bernardes.
The collaborative, outward-looking nature of the album is a first for the band and is established right from the beginning of track one, which opens with mesmerising vocals by Uwade Akhare, a talent Pecknold discovered through Instagram where she posted a cover version of the Fleet Foxes track, ‘Mykonos’. As well as featuring Akhare’s voice on two more tracks, Pecknold samples his hero, Brian Wilson on ‘Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman’. His vocals from the Beach Boys’ song ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)’ infuse the track with warmth and consolation.
Fleet Foxes have long channelled Wilson’s band with their use of harmony. On Shore however, Pecknold also takes on the playfulness of 60s pop with the song ‘A Young Man’s Game’. The band would have once been far too self-serious to pull off a track like this but Shore glows with openness, variety and a passionate desire to please.
The album’s guest vocalists and references to culture and politics past and present make it more immediate and grounded than any other of their albums. While not as tight and sonically cohesive as their previous projects, long-time fans of the band and new listeners alike are bound to be hooked by the music’s warmth and geniality.
Because for Pecknold, music is comfort, safety, home. ‘Kin of my kin / I rely on you’ he sings on the closing track and pays homage to his musical inspirations once more. Soft percussion fizzes like the gentle back and forth of the tide and it slowly becomes crystal clear: for Pecknold, music is his shore.
Listen to Shore: