Review Summary: Sunny folk-rock that represents a more lighthearted - but equally beautiful - departure for one of the most influential acts of the past decade.
Late into Shore
, Robin Pecknold sings “time’s not what I belong to, and you’re not the season you’re in.” Forgetting for a moment the obvious personal implications for Robin, it feels like his arms are outstretched towards all of us. The surrounding climate into which Shore
was released cannot be overlooked; 2020 has been less than kind to most people, and Pecknold’s lyrics read like an old, sage proverb. You’re not defined by the person you are now, the present is merely a season, and you will transform into many other variations of yourself over the course of your life. It’s as good of a reason as any to never lose hope. Perseverance has always pervaded Fleet Foxes as an entity: 2017’s Crack-Up
was built upon a similar ethos with its title derived from an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay in which he states, “I can’t go on, I must go on.” It’s a sentiment that many of us can relate to nowadays, and Shore
continues the band’s defiance of bleak, linear conclusions. Shore
sees Fleet Foxes reborn and entering a new season themselves; a stunning evolution to behold.
Fleet Foxes’ fourth album glistens with warmth, energy, and melody. Whereas Fleet Foxes
, Helplessness Blues
, and Crack-Up
were earthbound, Shore
sees Fleet Foxes entirely liberated and taking flight – a fresh incarnation of their former selves. The aura of rebirth isn’t something that Pecknold merely concocted out of thin air; Robin nearly died surfing in California right around the time that Crack-Up
was released. An Instagram post of his told the story of this record’s titling: “Broke my leash surfing one time and got caught in a big set maybe 300 yards from shore. Took such a long time to swim in, kept getting pummeled, panic attack, hyperventilating, tired, finally made it to shore. Shore = intense relief.” The sensation of relief can certainly be felt across all of Shore
’s fifteen tracks – it’s an album that pares back the ambitious weight and classical/avant-garde leanings of Crack-Up
in favor of cleaner cuts and more dazzling production. It’s in the same arena as Helplessness Blues
from a songwriting perspective, only more polished and ready for prime time. The results are jaw-droppingly lush; a piece that immediately makes its presence known while retaining its luster multiple spins later.
Often, this sort of evolution suggests a prioritization of aesthetic over form. Fortunately, none of Fleet Foxes’ traditional charms have been abandoned here: the cathedral vocals, pastoral acoustics, and poignant strings all return intact, only sounding more magnified and triumphant than ever before. In addition to returning their greatest assets (perhaps minus the experimental tilt of Crack-Up
), they also add a couple new elements to the fold – namely vocal variety (Uwade Akhere, an Oxford student, contributes on the opening ‘Wading In Waist-High Water’ and closing ‘Shore’, Tim Bernardes sings in Portuguese on the ‘Going-to-the-Sun Road’ outro, Brian Wilson is sampled on ‘Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman’) and brass horns (they break ground on ‘A Long Way Past The Past’ and then flourish across the album’s back-end). All of these musical components mesh seamlessly to create a listening experience that feels more unified than Crack-Up
’s oft-stitched ideas. If there’s an area where Shore
falls short, it’s that sometimes the production and layering can become a little too
condensed; compared to the way that previous albums ebbed and flowed, this one feels a bit streamlined. Regardless, there are merits to both aesthetics: the band’s opening trifecta trudged through a murky forest, whereas Shore
soars high up above a shimmering ocean. To achieve such an atmospheric shift without compromising the integrity of the band’s core approach is an impressive feat, yet Fleet Foxes make it sound effortless.
Just as Helplessness Blues
was at its best when Pecknold cut loose emotionally on the title track, and how Crack-Up
peaked when it was at its most winding and artistically expansive (‘Third of May’ is likely the song to cite), Shore
is also defined by the moments that best play to the record’s thematic and atmospheric qualities. In this case, the album is highlighted by its most lustrous tracks: ‘Featherweight’ dazzles with its minor key and cascading piano lines, ‘Going-to-the-Sun Road’ captivates with a gradual escalation of brass into a resplendent and wistful chorus, and ‘Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman’ enthralls with its dizzying horns, cathartic full-band crescendo, and an abrupt cliff-fall ending. Fleet Foxes also achieve success through numerous other avenues however, which is what allows Shore
to avoid getting lumped in with glitch-pop/avant-garde acts such as latter-day Dirty Projectors or 22, A Million
-era Bon Iver. ‘I’m Not My Season’, for instance, is a rootsy folk ballad that is among the most lyrically affecting moments of Fleet Foxes’ career (see the quoted passage at the inception of this review). The early album gem ‘Can I Believe You’ feels like vintage Fleet Foxes and partially is, boasting an earthy percussive floor, a huge melodic hook, and a guitar riff that was originally written for use in Crack-Up
. ‘Sunblind’ is a light-on-its-feet acoustic rocker that pays tribute to the likes of Richard Swift, John Prine, Judee Sill, Elliott Smith, David Berman, Ian Curtis, Jeff Buckley, and Otis Redding – all artists who passed away at a time of influence for Pecknold. The closer and title track floats atop little more than suspense-building drum rolls, giving one the sensation of laying on their back while slowly drifting out with the tide, gazing up at the stars (thus, as a conclusion, it’s sort of the thematic undoing of the album’s founding concept of arriving upon shore). In other words, for as glossy and sleek as Shore
can be, its foundation in indie-folk remains unbreakable – a crucial aspect in preventing the album from drifting too far into the ether.
offers respite through dreamy escapism. Rebirth, evolution, and seasonal transformations are all concepts espoused by Shore
, and the album’s unburdened aura is certain to resonate with anyone triumphing over adversity. The surprise release of Shore
at exactly 9:31am EST (the Autumnal Equinox) further postures it as a highly conceptual and existential piece; something worth examining as more than just a collection of songs. Fleet Foxes have clearly broken through a few comfort barriers with their fourth full-length – they no longer sound like bearded forest folk wielding acoustic guitars and moss-covered drum sets. Instead, they sound like a group of friends who have had a weight lifted from their shoulders and who want to share that joy and optimism with the entire world. It’s the sound of arriving on shore after fighting for your life against a dreadful undercurrent. It’s surviving unemployment/sickness during a global pandemic and living to tell your children. Shore
is triumphing over calamity and looking at the world through a new lens because there’s no going back to the way things used to be. It’s all about moving on, even when you think you can’t – a beautiful, human struggle.