Fleet Foxes Turns 10
By 2008, indie’s ascension was in full swing. Arcade Fire were already a big name. The preceding year, the National and LCD Soundsystem had released landmark albums. From the beginning of ’08 through ’09, you had the debut of Vampire Weekend, St. Vincent’s assured sophomore outing Actor, and crossover moments from Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear in the form of Merriweather Post Pavilion and Veckatimest. In the midst of it all, there was also Fleet Foxes, who released their first album 10 years ago yesterday and who went on to help define the era.
In some ways, Fleet Foxes is an album that’s very easy to tie to that time. MySpace played a crucial role in Fleet Foxes gaining exposure; it was also where Simon Raymonde, their one-time label head at Bella Union, discovered them via “White Winter Hymnal.” (When I spoke with Raymonde last November, he recalled the instant shock of hearing it and knowing he had stumbled across an immense talent. Fleet Foxes were on Sub Pop in America.)
Aesthetically, you could say there’s something endemically late ’00s about Fleet Foxes — the Brian Wilson influence or the knotty prog qualities that came along with the hints of chamber-pop orchestration and layers of harmonic textures favored by many of the artists of the time. When I first heard them back then, Robin Pecknold’s cavernous voice made them feel as if they were in some small lineage descended from My Morning Jacket, and I remember playing the debuts from Fleet Foxes and Band Of Horses alongside each other quite a bit. And with the concurrent rise of Bon Iver’s debut For Emma, Forever Ago, it was easy to see Fleet Foxes as part of a wave of bearded, woodsy, sensitive indie rockers, a more clean-cut successor to the freak-folk trend of a few years prior.
Given Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver’s respective trajectories, tying them together ended up making more sense than anyone could have known at the time. On that note, another reason Fleet Foxes registers as extremely late-’00s is that, upon its release, the group experienced the kind of meteoric rise that resulted in them owning the year. The debut earned rave reviews, topped end-of-year lists, and actually did real numbers commercially. Fleet Foxes put their stamp on 2008, and the strange flipside of that is in some ways it’s hard to hear Fleet Foxes now outside of that context, without being immediately transported back to that initial discovery 10 years ago.
Despite all that and despite Fleet Foxes symbolizing some tropes of the era, the passage of time makes Fleet Foxes feel like a slightly stranger situation. Though they aligned with some late ’00s signifiers and may be hard to separate from then, they also belong in a longer tradition. Part of this contrast might be rooted in the long absence that occurred between Fleet Foxes’ 2011 sophomore effort Helplessness Blues and last year’s Crack-Up. In a way, it’s like there’s this old Fleet Foxes lost to that particular time and place, and a new one that has rewritten their identity.
Fleet Foxes’ 2008 opening salvo actually came in two parts — their EP Sun Giant, which featured early standouts like “Drops In The River” and “Mykonos,” preceded Fleet Foxes by a couple months. (There was a self-released, self-titled EP in 2006, but it was much more rock-oriented and pretty much sounded like a different band.) Right off the bat, Pecknold proved himself to be a preternaturally-gifted songwriter when it came to melody and harmony — the entirety of those early works have a pristine beauty to them, further amplified by the sophistication and sharpness of the arrangements on Fleet Foxes in particular.
None of that would matter if there wasn’t a great voice at the center, and thankfully Pecknold was also a gifted singer. He had a clear, expressive voice that sounded as if it could move alongside the natural scenery his music conjured — rushing like a wild river, cooing mysteriously like wind through the trees. Most importantly, it had a yearning that belied the fact that Pecknold was just 22, a sense that he had seen more of the world than he actually had. There were plenty of “old soul” vibes on Fleet Foxes, but the counterpoint of the music’s youthful wonder is part of what made it so enveloping, and perhaps what makes it enduring.
The other case for Fleet Foxes holding up is, of course, the songwriting. The highlights on the debut remain some of Pecknold’s punchiest compositions. There was the rollicking “Ragged Wood,” the revery of twin centerpieces “Quiet Houses” and “He Doesn’t Know Why.” Towards the end, the album offered two songs that had something haunting around the edges, a note of desperation creeping into the young Pecknold’s voice when get got to “Your Protector” and “Blue Ridge Mountains.”
Bizarrely, some of these registered as pop-oriented. Here were a bunch of autumnal songs that seemed to suggest a lost world, and yet tracks like “White Winter Hymnal,” “Ragged Wood,” and “He Doesn’t Know Why” had melodies and hooks you couldn’t shake while also being easy to sing along to; the cheesy a cappella group Pentatonix even attempted to turn “White Winter Hymnal” into a Christmas carol. Similarly, Fleet Foxes may have stopped short of crafting anthems, but there was a climactic drama to “Blue Ridge Mountains” that always stuck out, whether as setting up the album’s conclusion or when seeing them tour behind it afterwards.
Even so: At the time, it was still striking to see them release this into the world and soon explode, leaping to the forefront of the indie scene. It was still striking to see them tumble through “Blue Ridge Mountains” on Letterman. There was something elusive and otherworldly inscribed in Fleet Foxes’ music — despite the trends in late ’00s indie, Fleet Foxes’ nods to Crosby, Stills, & Nash and collisions of various folk traditions didn’t exactly seem to be setting them up for serious success. If anything, you’d expect them to be a critically-adored group hanging off to the side of the indie conversation as some of those artists began to make true strides towards mainstream insurgence. But Fleet Foxes earned the young band a whole lot of fans; it was certified Gold right at the juncture when people were really starting to not be able to sell records anymore.
If a bunch of bearded folkies from the Northwest grabbing attention through a primitive social media platform and subsequently attaining prominence through an indie-hit album now scans as an implausible scenario, what followed was even unlikelier. Part of the reason it’s now disorienting to hear Fleet Foxes is because we know there later was a smattering of arena-folk hit-makers that appeared in their wake, as if Pecknold had set the stage for furious acoustic strumming and mandolins to have a pop moment.
The likes of Mumford & Sons, Lumineers, Of Monsters And Men, with all their thunderous drums and “whoa-oh” singalongs, seemed like some festival-ready pop mutation of elements Fleet Foxes had been utilizing since their earliest releases. Really, a lot of those bands feel like they exist thanks to Arcade Fire as much as anything else. But by the time you slipped into the following decade, it was hard to hear Fleet Foxes’ music as completely aesthetically separate from those bands, a not entirely fair comparison that could wind up diminishing Fleet Foxes in hindsight given the generally odious reputation attributed to those later groups.
This is an era Fleet Foxes mostly sat out, and perhaps intentionally. Through the middle of this decade, Pecknold went to college and slowly made his way towards their eventual comeback album Crack-Up. He’s commented before about not knowing where Fleet Foxes would fit in the post-Mumford landscape exactly. So when they did finally return with their third album, Fleet Foxes sounded a little different — older, fractured, voices calling out after time spent in the wilderness.
While this may be an opinion that puts me in the minority, I now find Crack-Up to be Fleet Foxes’ most accomplished, intriguing, and best release. There’s a whole different maturity and weight to it, a willful deconstruction and reimagining of Fleet Foxes. Pecknold could still write elemental melodies, but he’s also abandoned the facets that could consign Fleet Foxes to the late ’00s sound in favor of exploratory, intentionally severe arrangements that truly took their music to the enigmatic, alluring place it always suggested beforehand.
Maybe it was more impenetrable upon first listen, but that led to something more rewarding. Where some of Fleet Foxes’ peers have tread water, Pecknold’s approach on Crack-Up comes from an arcane and damaged space that, to me, lets it sit alongside semi-recent albums like Bowie’s Blackstar and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool more so than whatever the other late ’00s indie bands may be up to. In that context, it’s impossible to go back to Fleet Foxes without hearing a certain quaintness even considering the refinement that was clearly present in Pecknold’s writing already. (In a comment left on the Premature Evaluation of Crack-Up last year, Pecknold himself referred to the lyrics of Fleet Foxes as “pure RPG fantasy.”)
That isn’t mean to disparage what came before, the warm familiarity of Fleet Foxes or what the band managed to pull off with their career. You can’t get to Crack-Up without all that. You need to start with the wide-eyed exhilaration of Fleet Foxes, the sound of the world opening up and revealing endless possibilities. You need the fight to maintain that, the comedown of young adulthood anxiety that yielded Helplessness Blues. Musically, too, there’s more of a through line than it appears at first glance. Pecknold’s experimentation with multi-part sagas and more complicated, prog-tinged writing begins on Helplessness Blues. And from there you can get to Crack-Up, the most interesting album this band has released — who would’ve thought there’d someday be a Fleet Foxes album that begins as broken and frayed as Crack-Up and yet still fights its way towards beauty and resolution?
And here’s where things get weird for Fleet Foxes. As much as you can pigeonhole it in one or two trends of 21st century pop music, the moves Pecknold’s made recently should be pushing them towards where they’ve always belonged. Fleet Foxes may still bear some marks of 2008. But now it’s possible to hear it in the context of a three album arc that ends with an artist at war with himself — battling the parameters, the definitions of his career, that had existed up until that point.
Who knows where they will go from here. But the searching, ancient qualities that have always lingered at the core of their music feel as if, sometime soon, it might be possible to hear Fleet Foxes — whether on their debut or anything that came after — as simply a band out of time. Folk wanderers who bumped into one trend or another but are otherwise forging a different path.
Within all of that, Fleet Foxes sounds like innocence. Before all the buzz and the schlocky folk-pop radio hits of others, there were just those Fleet Foxes songs bent on seeing every corner of the landscape, songs that felt like they could swallow up the horizon and sing it back to you in a new set of colors. There’s a poignance to that now: hearing the brightness, the crystalline surfaces of Fleet Foxes, and knowing that at the other side of 10 years those surfaces would be shattered and their architect would have returned from a journey of self-rediscovery, wizened and conflicted.
Maybe that gives a renewed richness to Fleet Foxes then, the albums informing and altering one another over time. Right now, it sounds like a first chapter full of purity, that innocence. It’s nice to return to that pleasant world and remember the first time you traveled there, but it’s shot through with sadness knowing that collapse awaited. That gives it gravity, removed from the particulars of its place and time. As Fleet Foxes continue on and twist and turn further away from their debut, maybe there are yet other new ways in which we’ll be able to hear it.