Fleet Foxes led the folk revival of the late aughts. The amalgam of Beach Boys-style harmonizing, intricate acoustic chords progressions a la Crosby, Stills, Nash (and sometimes Young), and allusions to Romantic-era poet John Keats made their use of nostalgia and old tropes authentic. Their albums are intricate pieces of cinematic quality compositions. Lead singer and songwriter Robin Pecknold created orchestral sized sounds utilizing harmony, reverb, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, and some other instruments sparingly used to achieve such a grand sound. They even had Joshua Tillman (aka Father John Misty) as the drummer for their last album, 2011’s Helplessness Blues. To rate their songs one by one is challenging because they all sound great, and also they are not really stand alone songs, but fit to a grander schematic of their respective album. Still, we’ve taken a try at ranking each of Fleet Foxes’ 29 label-release songs here.
Pecknold released this cover song through his White Antelope band, but it was also released as the B-side to the Mykonos 7-inch single. The song is about the devil, who is dressed as a knight, trying to dupe a little boy. It is an old English ballad originally titled “The Fause Knight Upon the Road.”
Pecknold sings about grotesque images like “rotting fingers” in this Helplessness Blues track. It really gives the song a sense of dread, and no, It isn’t a song about zombies. The narrator uses gothic lyrics like waking up rotting and dying as a metaphor for a relationship that went bad.
Lyrically, this is a pretty weak Fleet Foxes track. The whole song consists harmonizing vocals, which makes it quite beautiful, if rather boring. “Heard Them Stirring” serves the same purpose as a panoramic landscape shot in a movie; it gives Fleet Foxes’ 2008 self-titled debut space and depth.
Another one of their cinematic, orchestral pastiches, “Cascades” is much like the previous entry, “Heard Them Stirring.” This song has an intricate arpeggiated acoustic guitar intro, though, which differentiates the tune, even if its purpose on Helplessness Blues is pretty comparable.
There are only 10 words sung in the yearning ode that is “Quiet Houses.” Even with the limited, opaque lyrics, the vocals and drums seem to bounce with each other in a sort of rhythmic harmony. And the subtle organ in the background gives the song off the band’s debut a little variation from the rest of the album.
This beauteous, hymn-like song features a simple chorus of, “What a life / What a life.” “Sun Giant,” the first song off the 2008 EP Sun Giant, is all about nascent energy—a beginning, the start of something fresh, new, and mysterious. It’s a great a cappella song with almost no instrumentation, only a mandolin teasing at the end of the song.
The entire self-titled Fleet Foxes record has an air of escapism to it, and “Blue Ridge Mountains” fits in with the narrative of the album. Pecknold has said that he wrote this song while reminiscing about the death of his grandfather. He addresses his actual older brother Sean in the lyrics and the songs serves as an homage to the times they spent with him.
In this song off Fleet Foxes, Baroque styled guitars are juxtaposed with lyrics about murder of someone named Jesse. The whole song is a mediation of death and guilt. It’s a simple, minimalist song with the only instrumentation of two guitars.
Don’t be fooled by the title of the song off Sun Giant. This song weighs heavy with guilt. Dark, morbid, and deep, “Innocent Son” also encourages multiple interpretations. But there is no clear answer and that’s why this song is great.
“Young today, old as a railroad tomorrow” is the second line of the verse, which sets the mood of the song. It’s about that fleeting moment, the slipping of time, the loss of youth and only living with memories past. The song’s deeper meanings hide under a layer of subtle metaphors and intricate instrumentation, though. The words from tis Sun Giant song all point to one thing—mortality. It’s is a great contour to the optimistic “Sun Giant,” the first song on the EP.
“Oliver James” is the final song off their self-titled album. It’s about new beginnings and a hopeful song. Literally, it seems as though a couple finds a child in a river nearly drowned, but saves it just in time. Yet, this could also be interpreted as a metaphor for birth, which offers a hopeful sentiment in contrast to the album’s themes of death and decay.
This song seems to reverberate the Beach Boys heavily. The band’s backing harmonizing juxtaposed with Pecknold’s John Keats-inspired lyrics—“In dearth or in excess / Both the slave and the empress / Will return to the dirt I guess / naked as when they came”—form an epic confluence that give the song a sense of historicity.
The juxtaposition of the tender first verse with the chaotic, emotional second verse is musical beauty at its best. Towards the end, the song goes to one of the best staccato, beat driven breakdowns.
The tone of this Helplessness Blues song is very pensive. As it progresses, the tension seems to build, but well-placed, slower bridges placate it. Those qualities make this song very cinematic, and with the lyrics about death and mortality, the combination makes this song one of Fleet Foxes’ strongest.
The narrator in this song seems to be thinking about a girl who left him: Will she stay? Will she wait for him? It’s not made clear. The flute in this song is cleverly placed in the background, which adds some much needed variation to Fleet Foxes’ first LP.
This song is reminiscent of “Blackbird” from the Beatles, but less optimistic in tone. Nostalgic and yearning like much of the band’s eponymous album, the song also features a clever construction. Pecknold sings, “Hummingbird please sing to me,” and the band responds with humming.
“Lorelai” is almost too pretty to be a breakup song. The narrator details a strained relationship that’s no longer compatible. With lyrics like the last verse, “Now I can see how / We were like dust on the window / Not much, not a lot / Everything’s stolen or borrowed,” the song assumes relenting tone: Everything is just temporary, anyway.
This song is about remorse, debt, and nostalgia. The lyrics state a “borrower’s debt,” so It could mean a literal financial debt or a more metaphorical pilfering of the spirit. The narrator looks back, hoping he can get back to “Innisfree,” a version of paradise W. B. Yeats describes in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
The title track of 2011’s Helplessness Blues is the ultimate millennial existential crisis. The narrator realizes he isn’t special. He is not a “unique snowflake.” He is only a “a cog” in a big machine. However, the song ends with a hopeful, almost optimistic feeling, as the lyrics to last refrain—“Hopefully one day he’ll be the man on the screen”—imply we might just figure out this life, after all.
“Innisfree” makes another appearance here, emphasizing Fleet Foxes’ fixation on finitude and temporary escapism. But the song structure of this Helplessness Blues track is comparatively experimental, touching on a bit of free jazz, too. The dynamic tempo never stays the same and strangely contorted string give this eight-minute song a distinct texture.
This song is about the internal wrestling between the person you actually are and the idealized version of who you want to be. “After all I said and done I feel the same / All that I hoped would change within me stayed,” sings Pecknold. It’s a good song to listen at the end of the year, as New Year’s resolutions weigh heavy.
“Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long / The spring is upon us, follow my only song,” sings Piecknold, yearning for renewal and spring bloom. The title “Ragged Wood” implies age, the abuse of time, a physical breaking down; it’s in direct contrast of the song optimistic melody and up-tempo rhythm.
Pecknold poses a series of existential questions throughout this Helplessness Blues song: “Why is the Earth moving ‘round the sun?” “Why is life made only for to end?” These questions have serious, but unstated implications. Do our constructs mean anything? Do they actually answer things or lead to more questions? The whole basis of this song is the question, so the narrator never answers it. The simple guitar in the background emphasizes the importance of the lyrics, more so than the other tracks.
The first song on Fleet Foxes begins with a sunrise, much like the first track off their Sun Giant EP. “Sun It Rises” captures that ethereal feeling of waking up in the morning. It makes you reminisce of lazily flicking the eye gunk off your fingers and luxuriating in first swig of coffee. Put in your morning playlist; it’s a good song to put you in the mood for the morning.
This song is about the ineffability of existence. It fits within the theme of Helplessness Blues, even though this song has a more optimistic feel than the rest of the LP. “In that dream I could hardly contain it / All my life I will wait to attain it,” sings Pecknold, giving the impression of a bigger, mysterious element in life that, while terrifying, can be beatific.
Although it might seem like Fleet Foxes only sing about birds, spring, the harvesting wheat, that’s not the case. Pecknold is actually a great lyricist and storyteller. This song, off the Sun Giant EP, epitomizes Fleet Foxes’ ability to tell enough, yet leave something to the imagination.
Possibly the best line in the Fleet Foxes catalogue comes in this song off the band’s self-titled album. “Memory is a fickle siren’s song I didn’t understand,” sings Pecknold. It’s one of those lines that hits like a brain-freeze—so good, but followed by the painful realization of an icy truth. The sentiment pervades the entire song, as Pecknold continues in the outro, “there’s nothing I can do.” It’s a beautiful contradiction of powerlessness and the will of helpfulness.
From the very first line in the verse, “The door slammed loud and rose up a cloud of dust, on us,” listeners detect a tension. Although it’s ambiguous to whom the narrator is referring, it’s clear that their was some sort of confrontation. Pecknold is a pretty ambiguous dude, and the mystery of this Sun Giant song is an alluring aspect contrasted tastefully with intricate instrumentation.
Fleet Foxes’ first big single is also their best song. It’s a cozy song, and even feels like winter (not just due to the power of suggestion in the title). Pecknold sings, “I was following the pack / all swallowed in their coats,” seemingly implying that everyone just goes about their cozy lives, trying to ignore the harsh reality of the surrounding coldness. Yet, the staccato beat, mellifluous harmonizing, and chanting hymn-like vocals make for a beautiful song even in the face of our own mortality.