Fleet Foxes’ ‘Shore’ offers serenity in a time of chaos – review
Since the very beginning, every Fleet Foxes album has been surrounded with outrageous levels of hype and anticipation. Even before they ever released their debut album or its accompanying Sun Giant EP, it was clear from their early MP3s that Fleet Foxes were a once-in-a-lifetime kind of band. That debut album ended up being just as fantastic as everyone hoped, and it was praised accordingly. (It's the only debut album in the past 15 years to have topped a Pitchfork year-end list, a phenomenon that happened much more frequently in the early 2000s.) Because of its success, so much was riding on the band's 2011 sophomore album, the more expansive and psychedelic Helplessness Blues, and that album delivered too. Then came a hiatus, so when Fleet Foxes finally returned with 2017's proggy Crack-Up, they were once again faced with high expectations to meet, because this time they had to live up to the hype that tends to come with "reunion" albums. Once again they met or even exceeded expectations, but they’d be the first to admit the pressure of those expectations did get to them. "I have spent more time than I'm happy to admit in a state of constant worry and anxiety," frontman Robin Pecknold wrote in a lengthy statement accompanying their fourth album Shore. "Worried about what I should make, how it will be received, worried about the moves of other artists, my place amongst them... I've never let myself enjoy this process as much as I could."
He says that anxiety started to consume him once again during the writing process for Shore, but after he watched the pandemic escalate and watched and participated in protests against systemic injustice, "most of my anxiety around the album disappeared. It just came to seem so small in comparison to what we were all experiencing together." He ended up completing the album and writing all of its lyrics during lockdown, and you can hear in the finished product how Robin ended up approaching this one without worrying so much about it on a grander scale. He said he was influenced by Arthur Russell, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Michael Nau, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, The Roches, João Gilberto, and others, "music that is simultaneously complex and elemental, 'sophisticated' and humane, propulsive rhythmically but feathery melodically," and that comes through on the new album. It's Robin's warmest, most relaxed music yet, and it makes sense that he decided to announce the album 24 hours before releasing it. There was no time to let a crazy amount of anticipation build up, and that was really the best way to put these songs out into the world. They don't mark the same leap in ambition that each previous Fleet Foxes album took from the last, and they exist almost entirely outside of today's musical zeitgeist, but none of that matters once you click play. Robin remains an extremely gifted songwriter, and these songs find him weaving in deceptively simple arrangements and some of the most instantly-satisfying melodies he's written yet.
Robin's always been the sole songwriter of Fleet Foxes' albums, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, none of the other members appear on this album at all, and Robin not only handled songwriting but also the production and arrangements himself. He found other ways to incorporate collaboration as he worked on the album at various studious around the world (in New York, LA, and Paris), though, inviting in Grizzly Bear's Christopher Bear to drum on the bulk of the record, as well as Chris' bandmate Daniel Rossen to play guitar and piano on a few songs, plus Kevin Morby, Holy Hive, horn quartet The Westerlies, a children's choir featuring The Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser's daughters, and more. And perhaps as a nod to the godfather of Fleet Foxes' harmony style, Robin sampled Brian Wilson's voice from an a cappella version of "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" from The Pet Sounds Sessions on "Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman" (and this album also used the actual vibraphone used for Pet Sounds). Robin also mentioned that he plans to release nine more new songs in 2021 written in collaboration with the other members of Fleet Foxes, which will be a first for the band. Given his current interest in collaboration, it's fitting that Shore opens with someone else's voice: Uwade Akhere, a 21-year-old musician who Robin says he came across after his friend showed him a video of Uwade covering "Mykonos" on Instagram. (She also ended up lending backing vocals to "Can I Believe You" and the title track.) "I was obsessed with the tone of her voice and how easy and textured it is," Robin said. Her voice is indeed great and it makes for a nice contrast to his, and it really sets the tone for this album finding Robin in a different headspace than its predecessors.
When Fleet Foxes released their debut album, there was a definite element of "right time, right place," as it was not only such a great record, but it came just as folk music was experiencing a massive resurgence in the mainstream. As the genre got even more popular, Fleet Foxes made increasingly difficult music, aligning themselves more with cultishly loved psychedelic folk obscurities than with radio-friendly indie folk. And though Shore goes down easier than any Fleet Foxes album since their debut, that's still the case. These are still meticulously arranged psychedelic folk songs that find Robin staying true to the music he loves, no matter how fashionable or unfashionable it makes his band seem. That kind of devotion brings a real sense of authenticity to Shore; so many modern folk musicians try to recreate the look and sound of a past era to the point of pastiche, but Fleet Foxes have always avoided this and they still do. Robin is just a natural when it comes to this style of music, and he continues to prove that Fleet Foxes earned their accolades because of raw talent, not because of embracing the buzzy subgenre of the moment. It's a great fit that the bulk of this album has Christopher Bear on drums, not just because Chris' sense for atypical rhythms is the perfect match for Robin's melodies and arrangements, but also because Grizzly Bear are another extremely talented band who stick to their guns no matter what's trendy at the moment. Some of Grizzly Bear's best work came after their Big Indie Zeitgeist Moment, and I think people will say that about Fleet Foxes in the years to come too -- if they already aren't.
"We don't need music to live, but I couldn't imagine life without it," Robin said in that statement accompanying the new album, and I think that's a thought a lot of us have had this year. Robin acknowledged how the unrest and injustice in the world did play a role in the creation of this album, and even if Shore isn't explicitly political, it provides a sense of serenity in a world full of everything but. 2020 has been a strange, tough year and it doesn't look like it's getting better anytime soon, and it's necessary to have a "life-preserver in this ocean of bad news," as Robin himself put it. You can't stop the waves from crashing, but you can at least hang on to something to help you make it through.
Shore is out now via ANTI- Records. Watch the lyric videos for every song: