Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Fleet Foxes Shore

Crack-Up could’ve been a conclusion. It certainly sounded like one, whether because the album played like a frayed breakdown at the end of Fleet Foxes’ constant searching, or that out of desolation and paralysis it still managed to locate moments of resolution. The whole thing, after all, was named for an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay and the concept of holding two conflicting thoughts in your mind at once. Robin Pecknold used the example of “I can’t go on, I must go on,” which worked as the album’s mission statement, and which seemed about as appropriate a mantra for the 21st century as one could settle on.

Despite still being young, Pecknold had tapped into something far-seeing. In the context of 2016/2017, Crack-Up had more in common with albums like David Bowie’s Blackstar or Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool than with Pecknold’s one-time ’00s indie peers. Bleak yet transfixing, darkness and promise at war within them, these albums had a kind of wisdom. Fleet Foxes had grown up, and maybe this belated conclusion to a trilogy was the only answer they needed.

As you might recall, Crack-Up was also the much anticipated return after a six-year gap in which Pecknold — fleeing a sudden and intense burst of success surrounding the first two Fleet Foxes albums — withdrew from the music world in favor of college and reflecting on what, exactly, he was doing. Crack-Up echoed the long journey towards its completion in the difficulty of its music; the finished product was a complex and fragmented work that often pitted desperate hope against existential crash-landings as songs abruptly collapsed in on themselves or veered off course. This was not the wide-eyed Fleet Foxes of yore, and Crack-Up became somewhat divisive. Soon after, Pecknold seemed proud of what he’d put together but also talked about it as some kind of purge. Whatever came next, and whenever it arrived, would have to be different once again.

That’s where Shore, the new Fleet Foxes album that arrived this morning along with the fall equinox, comes in. Fleet Foxes’ specific brand of otherworldly folk has always sounded as if Pecknold was corralling the grain and essence of nature, so if Crack-Up was arid badlands and lava flows and craggy cliffsides over violent seas, Shore is water rippling over smooth stones in a creek bed or light passing through the canopy of a forest. It’s crisp and rejuvenated, equal parts the evocative hues of autumn and the lush bloom of spring. Initially, it’s hard not to hear it within the shadow of Crack-Up given how momentous that album release was in Fleet Foxes’ story, but soon the albums start to dance with each other — as if Pecknold took whatever weathered, hard-earned answers flickered by the end of Crack-Up and decided to answer those, in turn, with something altogether brighter, gentler, and more welcoming.

Where Crack-Up was about isolation, Shore is about embrace. The new album has lost none of the ambition or intricacy of its predecessor, but it tempers those qualities in some ways. It is still ornate and orchestrated and thematically dense, but also more grounded and accessible. The uptempo songs thrum and glide; Pecknold’s voice is clearer and more powerful than ever, swooping through one big, transporting Fleet Foxes melody after another or, in the album’s slower moments, curling those melodies around you. These were all ways in which the album struck me on my first listen, but it turns out there are extremely close to Pecknold’s own set of professed goals. In an artist statement that accompanies Shore, he lists major influences on the album and describes what he hears in their work in order to explain the sound of Shore: “Music that is simultaneously complex and elemental, ‘sophisticated’ and humane, propulsive rhythmically but feathery melodically.” If that was his intent, then Shore is remarkably successful.

From its very first notes, Shore makes its openness clear. Pecknold, in fact, cedes the entire first song to another singer, Uwade Akhere. When he first takes the lead on the album’s second track “Sunblind,” he offers a tribute to fallen musicians, particularly those who died too young: “For Richard Swift… For Berman too/ I’ve met the myth hanging heavy over you/ I loved you long/ You rose to go/ Beneath you, songs, perfect angels in the snow.” It’s a different kind of mythology, one more plain and recognizable than on past Fleet Foxes albums; this is one we’ve all grazed up against. The rollicking chorus of “Sunblind” at first scans as escape — “I’m going out for a weekend/ I’m gonna borrow a Martin or Gibson/ With Either/Or and The Hex for my Bookends/ Carrying every text that you’ve given/ I’m gonna swim for a week in/ Warm American Water with dear friends.” But Pecknold is really grasping on to the feeling of being present despite everything else. It’s an entirely different statement for the introduction of Shore, one about soaking up all this world has to offer while we are here passing by each other.

What follows is almost an hour of music that is crystalline in its beauty at the same time that it feels lived-in, approaching an older feeling of folk-rock than ever before. Pecknold’s increasingly begun to feel out of time, and Shore continues that — it is at once something that feels classicist, but also warps the familiar with elements that make the music feel more elusive, further out of recognizable context. (Again, something Pecknold touches on in his statement when he considers the music “inhabiting both the future and the past.”)

There are all kinds of tiny flourishes that deepen and elevate these songs. The chopped-up vocal pattern that opens “Jara” at first seems like a baroque frill, but becomes one of many cascading textures in one of the album’s prettiest and most entrancing songs. Horn performances from the Westerlies are crucial to Shore as well, whether in the soulful reflection of “A Long Way Past The Past” or in the striking pulsations of the album’s climactic penultimate track “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman,” which almost approach a mid-century classical arrangement.

Perhaps this comes as little surprise at this point, but Shore is absolutely packed with musical information, layered details that overflow and demand immersive listening to pick out one by one. Shore sprawls across 15 songs, and it generally has the feeling of a prog-folk epic beamed in from some unknown era. At the same time, it also offers plenty of direct, instantly memorable tracks. “Sunblind” tumbles headlong into “Can I Believe You,” an infectious and emphatic song that you can already picture leaning into more of a rock energy onstage (and might bring you back to a moment when, say, you first discovered Fleet Foxes in 2008 and thought they sounded a bit like My Morning Jacket).

The album’s finest moments are split between those early tracks, an immediate spell at the beginning of Shore, and a handful of twilit, burnt amber tracks that sit in the second half. “Maestranza,” “Quiet Air / Gioia,” and “Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman” are the best kind of Fleet Foxes songs, the sort that feel as if they are once more awestruck as they rush through the world around us at the same time as they are concocting new dreamlike vistas. In a sense, the balance between carefully crafted and hooky Fleet Foxes songs with subtler experimental threads might make Shore a perfect synthesis of old and new Fleet Foxes, a summation of all the things the project can be. At the very least, it suggests what could’ve been of an album situated between the first two and Crack-Up.

But Crack-Up would not have registered the same way if that had been the case, and neither would Shore now. We and Pecknold had to pass through the gauntlet of Crack-Up to reach the place where Shore was possible, or even legible. From the wise-beyond-their-years yet still youthful abandon of Fleet Foxes to the quarter-life anxieties of Helplessness Blues, we arrived at the crisis of Crack-Up. And so the warmth and triumph of Shore feels less like a reclamation of the naïve wonder of Fleet Foxes, and more like a fragile happiness that has been sought out and must be protected.

In that context, if there’s any mark against Shore it’s that it doesn’t have quite the same sense of shock or adventurousness as Crack-Up — it’s far easier on us. This will, of course, be a matter of preference on the listener’s part; many Fleet Foxes fans may find Shore more immediately lovable, which it more or less objectively is. One thing that’s certainly distinct between the two is the shape of them — Crack-Up had murmured discursions that eventually burst into peaks like “Third Of May” or “On Another Ocean,” or settled into resounding meditations like “I Should See Memphis.”

The obvious highs within Shore could be harder to pick out — the album is uniformly gorgeous, sometimes overwhelmingly so when taken in all at once. But its aforementioned best moments are just as stunning as on any other Fleet Foxes album, each a serious reminder of Pecknold’s skill as a writer and singer, but also an architect. Shore flows as one, almost working as an opposite half to Crack-Up. One album that was by nature pieces desperately stitched together followed by an album that is, by design and in response, a vibrant and unified whole.

Crack-Up could’ve been a conclusion. But instead of one (somewhat distraught) trilogy, we now have two pairings. In that artist statement, Pecknold uses a lot of telling descriptions of Shore: He wanted an album of “relief,” and he sees the “shore” as “a place of safety on the edge of something uncertain… [you are] tempted by the adventure of the unknown at the same time you are relishing the comfort of the stable ground beneath you.” Just as Helplessness Blues once complicated Fleet Foxes with encroaching realities of adulthood, so too has Shore complicated the already fraught Crack-Up. A moment of near-defeat became a thing of strangled beauty, which in turn taught Pecknold how to tap into that vein more fully, more wholeheartedly, once more. So Shore becomes the oldest and wisest Fleet Foxes album, but also the one that is most insistent on recognizing transformation and transcendence going on all around us, in the fabric of daily life and the banal slippage of one date on the calendar to the next. All of which is to say: Shore sounds like someone recognizing a new beginning, and wrapping their arms right around it.

Shore is out now digitally and will see physical release on 2/5/21 via Anti-. Purchase it here.