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Autumn Hymnal: The Story of Fleet Foxes’ ‘Shore,’ Their Stunning Surprise-Drop New Album

Summer may be over, but that doesn’t mean that Robin Pecknold isn’t taking in some sunshine

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In any other year, Fleet Foxes would’ve completely tanked worker productivity on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday. With only hours’ worth of advance notice, their breezy, beautiful new album Shore dropped at 6:31 a.m. PT on the autumnal equinox; thousands sat with their crossword and morning coffee as “Sunblind” offered an invitation to ditch any and all work obligations to grab a guitar, get away for a few days, and join Robin Pecknold at the nearest body of water. If it sounds more than a little like a commercial for a beachcombing SUV, well, that’s just proof of concept—Pecknold casually mentions that he wrote the majority of Shore’s lyrics behind the wheel of his 2018 Toyota 4Runner, one with a retractable back window that allows the Fleet Foxes frontman to stash his surfboard and camping equipment.

I don’t bring up Pecknold’s ride or leisure activities as a gotcha moment, something that cuts against expectations of what might be on brand for the reigning bard of bearded indie—a Prius powered by corn ethanol or, I dunno, an ox-drawn buggy. Rather, it cuts against expectations for a Fleet Foxes album spurred into existence within the unyielding, dour national mood and social limitations of COVID quarantine. Shore is their most collaborative, most joyous album, and also one that transcends what Pecknold called the agrarian fantasies of their early days for an earnest plea to hear the call of the wild.

“The first line of the album is ‘Summer’s all over’ and the last line is ‘Now the quarter moon is out,’” Pecknold says, “and coincidentally that’s the phase the moon that will be entering in on [September] 23.” He confesses that none of these “corny, cosmic” coincidences were obvious to him until he finished the record, but once they emerged, he committed to the time-sensitive release date, well aware that Twitter’s initial reviews would fixate on Mr. Autumn Man and Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfucker memes.

Shore is intended to be the most generous of Fleet Foxes’ albums, ostensibly a replenishment of goodwill after Helplessness Blues and Crack-Up were each designed in some way to dismantle Fleet Foxes’ reputation. At 15 songs, it’s the first Fleet Foxes album that stretches its legs onto the dashboard, daring to follow its more mischievous impulses and risk an inessential yet enjoyable moment or two. Pecknold intended “Young Man’s Game” as a tribute to John Prine’s wry country storytelling: “I was trying to talk about things that are dumb and you’re happy to leave behind, elements of insecurity or immaturity or comparing yourself to other people,” he says. “I’d been too self-conscious to make a song that goofy before.” If critics are going to view Fleet Foxes as a ’70s throwback, “Maestranza” and “A Long Way Past the Past” attempt to reframe them as playing alongside Stevie Wonder or Bill Withers over the PA at a roller rink. “Can I Believe You” is Pecknold’s “headbanger,” its heaving chord progression written as a release valve during the intermissions that broke up the “mentally exhausting” three-hour sets on the tour for 2017’s Crack-Up, an album that could be described by dozens of adjectives that are the opposite of “goofy” or “headbanging” or “funny.”

Pecknold is immensely proud of Crack-Up and also aware of the reputation it’s developed as Fleet Foxes’ “difficult album.” “It’s a bit of a beard-scratcher,” he jokes, a perversion of a more common term that betrays his acute self-awareness about his band’s perception. He’s not exactly talking about Crack-Up’s imposing sonic density or the academic heft of its lyrics, or even the fact that its lead single was a nine-minute medley titled “Third of May / Odaigahara.” Nor is it due to those marathon live shows in America’s most hallowed concert halls, or that Fleet Foxes leapt from legendary hometown indie Sub Pop to Nonesuch—a label that’s put out indie rock classics like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and several Black Keys albums, but has mainly focused on the likes of baroque classical music, Steve Reich, Buena Vista Social Club, and artists that quietly get nominated for Best Contemporary Folk Album at the Grammys. Shore is being released on Anti-, which makes Fleet Foxes labelmates with the likes of Japandroids and fellow recent surfing converts Deafheaven.

Still, the Fleet Foxes leader hasn’t quite reconciled with the “stink of prestige” that he sensed enveloping Crack-Up, or, more specifically, Robin Pecknold, Columbia student. At the very least, the stunted album rollout means that listeners and critics had to immediately engage with the music itself, rather than the narrative around his unexpected urbane, Ivy League pedigree. Pecknold notes that his enrollment at Columbia University at age 26 wasn’t included in the Crack-Up press materials, but it became the center of nearly every profile. Three years later, he’s still got “a few semesters to go” before graduating and had plans to knock out some classes without the onus of touring. Those plans changed once Columbia cancelled in-person classes and maintained its staggering $30,000-per-semester tuition. “I don’t want to pay all that money for Zoom college,” Pecknold bluntly states.

Shore asked a similar question with its album rollout: Why bother with the older, more expensive and time-consuming model when you could do everything at home? “The original plan was to finish the album in April, have some summery songs released throughout the summer, and have it released in September and go out on tour,” Pecknold recalls. But once those plans were scuttled, “I was prepared to [put it on] Bandcamp myself.” Fortunately, Anti- found ways to do the necessary legwork behind the scenes so that publications could have enough lead time to run glowing reviews and song explainers concurrent with the release.

Even though more commercially modest acts like Hum and Jeff Rosenstock successfully utilized similar guerrilla tactics in 2020, Pecknold still had reservations about Fleet Foxes’ ability to pull it off. “We’re not Taylor Swift or Beyoncé.” However, Pecknold is now only one degree of separation from Beyoncé (vis-à-vis the involvement of Josh Tillman on Lemonade—you might’ve heard Father John Misty used to be their drummer) and Taylor Swift. As with Swift’s Folklore, the creative process of Shore was fostered in Aaron Dessner’s bucolic studio in upstate New York, a merger between two of the aughts’ most beloved acts so sensible that it’s hard to believe it didn’t already happen.

There are very few trends in 2020 that can be truly considered a pleasant surprise, and one of them is a Taylor Swift album raising the possibility of a Dark Was the Night revival—the kind of obliquely liberal-leaning, rootsy indie rock that was celebrated as the soundtrack for the “hope and change” Obama era and criticized as wan musical neoliberalism after the 2016 election. If you’re looking for evidence of our shattered nation longing to care about stupid bullshit, look no further than 2017’s “Bad and Boujee”-gate; Pecknold and the Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth got into an Instagram discussion bemoaning indie rock’s shift away from the “progressive” sounds of their heyday, and it was a thing for several days. On some level, they weren’t wrong—blame poptimism, or emo revival, or just a younger generation hewing towards “feeling stuff” music, but there was an unmistakable shift toward more of a ’90s-indebted, straightforward singer-songwriter mold, something a bit more accessible than, say, tUnE-yArDs.

Neither Pecknold nor Longstreth considered the optics of two 30-something white guys kvetching about this topic in a year where auteurish women of color were displacing bands full of white guys as the face of indie rock, and both eventually backtracked. Stereogum subsequently published a searing review of Crack-Up that compared Fleet Foxes to Pinkerton-era Weezer (rock star freaks out about fame, hauls off to the Ivy League), and denounced the record as “fucking puzzles” rather than anthems. Pecknold responded in the comments with a dense, impassioned defense of his intentions, explaining in detail how Crack-Up was indeed a politically minded and contemporary album, illuminating how police brutality and riots inspired otherwise obtusely-named songs like “- Naiads, Cassadies” and “I Should See Memphis” (Egypt, not Tennessee).

I ask Pecknold whether he got the sense of any backlash arising from Crack-Up or his failure to heed “don’t read the comments, and immediately realize the short-sightedness of the question. “I feel like the backlash was five years before that,” he responds, which, right—the whole “indie folk” boom. Granted, “indie folk” had thrived in the immediately preceding years, albeit in the form of warbly weirdos like Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart, the Tallest Man on Earth, and Bon Iver before Justin Vernon discovered Autotune. Less than a year removed from soliciting shows in Seattle on MySpace, Fleet Foxes topped Pitchfork’s 2008 year-end albums list with the Sun Giant EP and Fleet Foxes, which imagined indie-folk as something capable of an Arcade Fire– or Interpol-type scaling up. Fleet Foxes aren’t solely responsible for Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, the Head and the Heart, but not totally absolved.

After a long struggle with writer’s block and the expectations borne of Fleet Foxes’ runaway success, Pecknold returned in 2011 with Helplessness Blues, an album that looked upon his accomplishments and wondered whether any of it compared to having children or toiling the earth. Underneath an exterior The Guardian called “almost laughably beautiful” lay one of the decade’s most poignant explorations of millennial anxiety, long before anyone was using terms like “millennial anxiety.” “That’s when I felt really tender and needed to like … hide,” he says.

Pecknold has not abandoned his political conscience on Shore; early on, he invokes Victor Jara, a communist folk singer and folk hero murdered by the brutal Pinochet regime who rose to power in a CIA-abetted coup. In the very next song, the deceptively titled “Featherweight,” Pecknold booms, “many men might die for what I’d renounced.” Still, Shore otherwise honors Pecknold’s intention to create a more “well-adjusted” counterbalance to the brooding Crack-Up. There are numerous songs about road trips and camping, and nearly everything clocks in between two and four minutes, leaving the 5:10 “Cradling Woman, Cradling Mother” as the relative epic (there are no skronking, free-jazz saxophone solos). “Crack-Up was really personal, and I wanted this one to be more about thinking about my friends and the world and past musical heroes,” Pecknold explains. “Sunblind” alone references Richard Swift, Bill Withers, John Prine, Elliott Smith, Arthur Russell, Judee Sill, and David Berman—though listeners who’ve never heard of Silver Jews are still open to take Pecknold’s desire to “swim for a week in warm American water with dear friends” literally. Hopefully, they’ll become familiar by the closing title track: “after word of Berman, I remember Pfeiffer burning.”

Shore isn’t simply about Pecknold trying to commune with the deceased; the massed vocals on “Can I Believe You” are a composite of about 400 to 500 recordings from Instagram followers singing the chorus. In fact, the first voice heard on the album belongs to Uwade Akhere, a fellow Columbia student who caught Pecknold’s attention with an Instagram video cover of “Mykonos.” While studying classics for a semester at Oxford, the 21-year-old boarded a train to meet up with Fleet Foxes at their studio in France. Compare this to the first song on Crack-Up, which sampled a high school a cappella cover of “White Winter Hymnal” and was taken by many as Fleet Foxes taking a shot at their older self. And after spending years admiring Chris Bear’s tricky drumwork in Grizzly Bear, he finally worked up the courage to ask for a collaboration. Bear was one of the few whose contributions to Shore predate COVID. “I didn’t know what was going to happen in the future, so I asked everyone I always admired because I don’t know if I’ll get the chance again. Go all out, because who knows what the future holds?” One of the upshots of quarantine is that nearly everyone in Pecknold’s circle had a home studio setup by the time he began working on Shore in earnest.

Had Shore been released a year earlier, its current warm reception could be interpreted solely as a referendum on Crack-Up. It still might be, but there’s also a largely unspoken desire for 2020 counterprogramming that doesn’t feel as feeble as, say, a West Wing reunion. Or, at least, someone living out the vision so many idealistically set for themselves at the outset of quarantine; using an abundance of time and accessible recording apps to spur creativity, connect with old and new friends in the virtual space, discover as much new art as possible. Something like Pecknold once vowed to do on “Helplessness Blues,” exerting his creative agency in the face of a “world outside so inconceivable, often I can barely speak,” working until they’re sore if only for the satisfaction of the work itself. “One thing I internalized on the Crack-Up tour is that if I do want to have a career in music, I probably shouldn’t expect to have one forever, and I should just continue to work as hard as I can and do things that are exciting to me,” Pecknold bluntly asserts. “People get inspired by people who are excited and feeling actualized. They want to see evidence of that.”

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.

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