We were given a glimpse into the fulcrum of the new Fleet Foxes album when we heard the title track, an apology of selfless, dedicated workmanship: 'after some thinking/ I'd say I'd rather be/ a functioning cog in some great machinery / serving something beyond me'. It is a very earnest and personal line, devoid of any rhetorical artifice: it came to me as a bit of a shock - despite it being delivered very unassumingly -, considering how their self-titled debut was a collection of bucolic and dreamy flights of fancy, and it also generally avoided the I form. Do you remember the best song on that album, White Winter Hymnal" Amidst ethereal vocal harmonies and echoing guitars, it displayed a gift for vivid imagery, but the place it harkened to was oddly disconnected from reality.
Montezuma, the first song, strengthens that startling first impression, with a line that is equally revelatory of Pecknold's anguish: 'So now I am older/ than my mother and father/ when they had their daughter / now what does that say about me"' basically tapping into the same notion - that the quest for identity and uniqueness is often empty.
Which isn't to say that Fleet Foxes have abandoned their taste for grand, epic storytelling: intimate emotion and picturesque metaphor here enjoy a strange and beautiful interplay, and they emerge with stronger potency than they would on their own.
A perfect example is the masterpiece of the album, the one song that encapsulates the multiple and contrasting treasures of this record: The Shrine/ An Argument, a song that will be mentioned in different reviews for different reasons. Starting out like standard Fleet Foxes, it enraptures the listener by degrees, like a masterfully conceived mouse trap - first with a blistering, painful line delivered by a distraught Pecknold: 'Sunlight over me no matter what I do', a line intentionally written to sound feel-good and ultimately stale on paper, while Pecknold's delivery nudges you into believing that the meaning must be something different entirely, and it won't take you long to find out. Then the song bursts into a massive, blistering chorus, an account of a romance nearing its end, geared more towards conveying the timeless, aching beauty of the human condition than expressing self-pity in the here and the now. If that weren't enough, the song ends in the oddest fashion imaginable, with a free-jazz freakout enriched by trembling, eerie synths. Serving as interludes between the more cathartic parts, there are these odd moments that seem like vintage Fleet Foxes, with their usual stock imagery: 'apples in the summer all gold and sweet / every day a passing complete', their appearance somewhat abrupt within the song, suggesting perhaps the writer's restless quest for a 'happy place', a sort of empty escapism.
This album is compelling when it wraps deep resentment and angst in an agreeable and classical sounding package, with these emotions always lurking in the background and occasionally surfacing in all their ugly, uncomfortable reality.