In the week before the autumn equinox of this strange year, I was in the small fishing town of Beer in Devon, England, spending the first week with my family and away from stagnant city air since lockdown began in March. I was born in the Midlands, with a hundred miles of industrial towns between us and the sea to the east and the entire country of Wales to the west: in Beer I was reminded of the enigma of a sea I was used to seeing rarely; the oddity of nothing on horizon, the refreshing crispness of sea-salt and offensive crispness of the wind. The waves of an encroaching tide don’t ever lose their novelty; we spent each evening watching the cusped hands of the sea fold the pebbled beach back over itself. (Also, most of the pubs were shut).
It’s a shame that the Fleet Foxes missed me by one week; it would have been perfect to hear their fourth album there, rather than lying in Clissold Park in central London with an accidentally-purchased alcohol-free beer and the sight of some teens nicking a park-keeper’s buggy for accompaniment. The music took me back to the water regardless. Titled Shore, and with a gorgeous photograph by Hrisohi Hamaya as it’s cover, it’s an album which sort of shimmers – like the sea when the sun hits it just right – propelled by waves of intricate instrumentation and pockmarked by birdsong and a kind of delicate tonality indebted to Phillip Glass.
Eschewing the arbitrary industry-standard Friday release-date, the album was dropped on Tuesday September 22nd, the day of the autumn equinox, and it’s easy to see why: Shore is refreshing in a way not unlike the new season. While 2017’s Crack-Up was a literary and often-beautiful release, it was a complicated listen by design, and that is not the case for Shore. With four more songs but exactly the same run-time, this collection is direct, the vast scope of the previous release traded in for a set of sharp songs, written solely by Pecknold before and during the pandemic. The album is bright and colourful, with sweetness brought by moments like the Laurie Anderson-aping scales which open “Jara”, or the dainty organ which dances around “Featherweight”.
The other contributor to the album’s freshness comes from a theme of humility which runs through the music. The band was once home to folk-rock’s most entertaining narcissist, but Pecknold takes a different tact: opening song “Wading In Waist-High Water” is sung entirely by Uwade Akhere, a 19 year old student from Oxford who Pecknold discovered when she posted a cover of one of his songs to YouTube. The second song “Sunblind” is dedicated entirely to his influences, describing the liberating feeling of accepting your work to be eternally in the shadow of your heroes: “And in your rarified air I feel sunblind / I’m looking up at you there high in my mind / Only way that I made it for a long time / But I’m loud and alive, singing you all night”. Indeed Pecknold claims to have only been able to make the album by making playlists filled with Arthur Russell, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Michael Nau, Van Morrison, Sam Cooke, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou and more and simply bathing in them, learning from their use of simplicity and warmth. You can certainly hear Sam Cooke in the sweet melancholy of “A Long Way Past The Past”, and you can literally hear Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys’ voice on “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman”, a sample from behind the boards of Pet Sounds.
With these nerdy little references to music history and song titles Pecknold himself admits he isn’t clear on, the Fleet Foxes’ music retains an air of sophistication. For those of us of a certain age, the sound of orchestral, acoustic guitar-thrashing folk acts like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers became commonplace, so these songs are timely reminders that, although Fleet Foxes deploy a similar sound, they are the opposite of conservative. Paying homage to the propulsive funk of Stevie Wonder with the staples of 70s folk on “Maestranza” is actually pretty weird, as is the climax of “Quiet Air / Gioia”, a shapeshifting climate-change rager which sees Pecknold hollering call and response vocals decrying “oh devil walk by / I never wanna die, I never wanna die” over some lolloping scales in a way which sounds more like The Knife than Crosby, Stills & Nash, or whoever.
Even though these songs are more direct than their predecessors, it’s hard to call fans who have called this clearer direction “too pop-y” anything other than massive hipsters. Despite their melodiousness, Shore’s ear-worms are little vocal inflections and soaring instrumentation, not bar-room choruses. Sometimes the denseness of the recordings are actually too much: but thankfully “For A Week Or Two” and “I’m Not My Season” redress the balance with patient tempos, the latter being perhaps my favourite cut off the record; an elegant and mournful slice of winter poetry which paints depression as a monolithic state, unchanged by sunshine or rain.
Shore then is the sort of decluttering which can feel anti-climatic in the wake of Crack-Up’s complexities, but the approach is a necessary one. Marvin Gaye followed the densely political What’s Going On with the simply horny Let’s Get It On, and Kendrick Lamar released the hit-yielding DAMN in the wake of To Pimp A Butterfly. Sometimes, when you release a 75 minute jazz epic tied together by performance poetry, there’s really nowhere else to go. Shore certainly seems to be a similar response to the ornate and elusive Crack-Up, with Pecknold even commenting on the physical toll of crafting such a dense work: “living for that long inside Crack-Up’s dense compositions, and touring that relentlessly, left me in a quandary: I didn’t want to take another long break from music… but I needed to find a new, brighter way of making songs if I was going to go straight into something large and ambitious again”.
By releasing on the equinox, the Fleet Foxes owned their lane in a way more bands should. Much is made of the band being ‘autumnal’, but it’s normally take as given without much rumination on what that actually means. For me it’s about balance: Pecknold’s powerful voice lends a touch of melancholy to bright instrumentals which make a rock band sound like an orchestra, and likewise autumn is a in-between period in our planet’s slingshot around the sun. It helps that their last two albums were about transitions too: Helplessness Blues was a classic of the genre in fact – about the shift from adolescence into adulthood – and Crack-Up was about finding footing in this new state of being. Shore is about arrival. Its songs are bold, bright and direct: gone is the tentativeness of their third album’s reticent moments of tense quiet and lyrically, Pecknold seems to have found a firm sense of direction here: stood facing the sea, looking out.
Liam Inscoe – Jones