Review: Fleet Foxes’ 'Shore' offers reflection on changing times

by Jack Hargrove | 9/28/20 2:00am

by Sophia Bailey / The Dartmouth Senior Staff

With their self-titled 2008 debut, Fleet Foxes established themselves as an indie folk outfit with achingly sincere, pastoral lyrics and a penchant for vocal harmonies. And unlike many folk rock artists emerging out of the late 2000s, they have remained fresh, while managing not to make a major departure in style on any of the three albums they have released since their debut. After a six-year hiatus, their third album “Crack-Up” dove headfirst into progressive folk, with denser instrumentation, longer songs and unorthodox song structures. With “Crack-Up,” Fleet Foxes proved that they could work within their established style to create a challenging, dense album of music that defied accessibility. With their newest album “Shore,” released on Sept. 22, Fleet Foxes have proved the opposite: Their music can be equally powerful with simpler instrumentation and more accessible, catchy songs. 

The release of the album at the exact time of the autumnal equinox — 9:31 a.m. Eastern time — is no coincidence; the late-summer imagery throughout the album reflects fear of good times ending and makes for an ideal sound for fall. On “Shore,” Fleet Foxes combine delicate instrumentation with optimistic lyrics in a more focused and welcoming way than its predecessor, without losing any of its profundity.

Fans of Fleet Foxes may be surprised when the vocals of “Wading in Waist-High Water” begin: the voice does not belong to the band’s songwriter and lead vocalist Robin Pecknold, but instead to Uwade Akhere — an Oxford student whom Pecknold discovered after seeing a clip of her performing the band’s hit song “Mykonos.” A guest vocalist is a rarity for Fleet Foxes; while Akhere’s vocals sound fine, they feel commonplace in comparison to Pecknold’s distinctive manner of singing. The baroque instrumentation and beautiful imagery of the song undeniably fits with the band’s style. The lyrics, “Summer all over/Blame it on timing/weakening August water/Loose-eyed in morning/Sunlight covered over/Wading in sight of fire” paint a picture of nature at the end of summer, a recurring motif in the album.

When Pecknold’s vocals finally begin in the next track, “Sunblind,” he focuses on the music of others rather than his own. The lyrics function as a eulogy for many deceased artists that Pecknold admires, including Elliott Smith — an Oscar-nominated singer and instrumentalist who died in 2003 — and David Berman — the former lead singer of indie rock band Silver Jews — the latter of whom’s 2019 suicide is referenced multiple times in the album. Despite the dour subject matter, the song sounds upbeat and hopeful, with a sunny guitar line and expressive vocal melody.

Perhaps the loveliest song on the album is the seventh track, “For a Week or Two.” Pecknold’s singing is slow and deliberate, using layered vocals to create extensive harmonies. The lyrics describe a backpacking trip, with images of natural beauty including, “You sought land/Overgrown/No words, no false, no true/Water stands/Waves just pass through it/Like something moves through you.” These lyrics reflect the peace that comes from losing track of one’s self and becoming a part of nature.

Many songs on “Shore” do not stand out on their own, but collectively contribute to the beauty and accessibility of the album. The third track, “Can I Believe You,” contains one of the catchiest choruses in the album. The off-kilter time signature and warm choral harmonies add to the vocal melodies to create a great album track. The 10th track, “I’m Not My Season,” is the most straightforward ballad on the album. The sparse instrumentation compliments Pecknold’s humanist appraisal of a relationship, romantic or otherwise, in which both parties support each other through their various “seasons,” or moods.

Although nearly every song on this album is, at the very least, good, some tracks lack the power of others. Both “Jara” and “Thymia” are teeming with the beauty found in the rest of the album. However, neither track contains any substance outside of their aesthetic. Both feel like beauty for the sake of beauty — featuring generic harmonies and instrumentation — making them feel pointless in comparison to other tracks. The only song that I do not care for in any way is “Young Man’s Game,” which sounds indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill, generic indie folk-rock. The instrumentation is sterile, and the refrain of “It’s a young man’s game” feels incessant and irritating.

The album ends with the songs “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman” and “Shore.” The former serves as the climax of the album as the bright horns and massive instrumental sound grand, even when compared to other songs. The lyrics wrap up the recurring themes of the LP, particularly, “And I feel worn, but the air is clean/And my clothes are torn, but it’s right on me/Passing rain, blue white heat/Agony, not to me, it’s not defeat.” This line is a final reference to both the scenery of summer’s end and Pecknold’s hope in the face of sadness. 

The song “Shore,” on the other hand, serves as more of an epilogue. Like the first track, Akhere’s vocals are used again, but this time she sings alongside Pecknold. Along with references to Berman, Smith and John Prine — a country folk singer-songwriter who died earlier this year — her vocals provide bookends to the album, connecting with the first two tracks. The cohesion this provides to the album rewards the listener for sticking through the entire 55-minute duration.

Overall, “Shore” is not as complex or experimental of an album as “Helplessness Blues” or “Crack-Up.” However, Pecknold’s sincerity, vulnerability and ability to find beauty wherever he looks helps Fleet Foxes to feel just as fresh and exciting as they did in 2008. In this way, “Shore” feels much more similar to Fleet Foxes’ debut album than it does to either of the other two. The music and lyrics do not reach the same depths as their second or third albums, but only because they do not try to. Instead, Fleet Foxes have made a simple album describing life’s simple pleasures that makes for the perfect soundtrack to autumn.