There are several elements that make a Fleet Foxes album great. Layered vocals, daring instrumental swells and vibrant, at times anxious, lyrics are all present throughout their catalogue, from the assured folk-pop of their 2008 self-titled debut to the magnificent existential ramblings on 2017’s Crack-Up. These signifiers are all present on their new album Shore, but the effects are much more nuanced. Fleet Foxes remain a quintessential millennial band, and, on Shore—which dropped with only a day’s warning—they’re once again tapping into the millennial psyche, this time with a little more optimism.
Upon first listen, Shore lacks the immediacy of Fleet Foxes and 2011’s Helplessness Blues—at least from a sonic standpoint. But frontman Robin Pecknold’s astonishingly thoughtful lyrics quickly bring the listener back up to speed, at times recalling the grandiose scope of Crack-Up’s more cheerful moments, even if the indie-rock stylings are lagging a bit. He’s at times bursting with love (or, in the case of the triumphant “Wading In Waist-High Water,” in over his head) and at others dryly funny (“I’ve been solving for the meaning of life / No one tried before and likely I’m right,” he offers on “Young Man’s Game”). But he’s almost always getting at something wise or meaningful.
At times throughout his career, Pecknold has hidden behind more metaphorical lyrics and mythological narratives. But, on album highlight “Sunblind” (which pleasantly bleeds together with “Wading In Waist-High Water’’ in the tracklisting), he’s forthright in dedicating the song to his late musical heroes: John Prine, David Berman, Bill Withers, Judee Still, Elliott Smith and Richard Swift are all called out by name, with the latter two providing the soundtrack to a weekend respite (“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”). The list goes on as he namedrops Jeff Buckley and Arthur Russell, singing “I’m loud and alive / singing you all night,” as if to say “I won’t let anyone forget you” to each of those artists who left us too soon.
Shore only gets livelier from there, peaking into Sufjan Stevens-esque nostalgia on “Featherweight” and expressing old-soul fatigue on the quick-paced rocker “Young Man’s Game.” Pecknold also familiarizes himself with his own privilege on the second of those two, singing “I’ve been lucky as sin / not one thing in my way.” He expounds on this idea in a statement released alongside the album: “I’ve been so lucky in so many ways in my life, so lucky to be born with the seeds of the talents I have cultivated and lucky to have had so many unreal experiences. Maybe with luck can come guilt sometimes. I know I’ve welcomed hardship wherever I could find it, real or imagined, as a way of subconsciously tempering all this unreal luck I’ve had.” That gratitude seems to radiate from every corner of Shore, even its more somber moments.
Now 34, Pecknold seems much more comfortable with life’s messy bits—and much more eager to embrace the small things. He pulls a friend from the depths of despair on the jaunty “Jara” and condemns the youthful days when he once romanticized pain on “A Long Way Past The Past.” But it’s on the title track and album closer where he seems the most at peace, clinging to a loved one for dear life before memorializing Prine and Berman yet again. “Kin of my kin / I rely on you / taking me in,” he sings, reaching for the safety of the shore from the choppy banks. The root of the German word for friendship roughly translates to “place of high safety,” and that holy stronghold seems to be what Pecknold is grasping at throughout Shore’s generous 55 minutes. Shore is a place to return to when you’re weary.
The album is indeed the work of many, which is maybe one reason it feels so generous. From the numerous instrumentalists and collaborators (including recent Taylor Swift partner Aaron Dessner and Oxford student and singer Uwade Akhere, who opens the album with a beautifully controlled verse) to the choir of children who usher in Pecknold’s first lines on the record, Shore feels broad and warm, like a wedding reception or another gathering of beloved friends and family, even if Pecknold (humble as he may be) really remains the sole Fleet Foxes mastermind. There’s an air of togetherness that feels especially vital right now.
While Shore is rife with specific musical allusions and abundant references to nature, these lyrical quirks favored by Pecknold are all in service of the album’s overall cozy tone (“cozy” being an applicable word, because the band released Shore exactly in time with the autumnal equinox, thereby fully owning their reputation for being habitual creators of cool weather vibes). Pecknold grabs the listener by the hand on “I’m Not My Season,” ready to pass on this graceful reminder: “Though I liked summer light on you / If we ride a winter-long wind / Well time’s not what I belong to / And you’re not the season you’re in.” We as humans are not defined by circumstances—we just live through them.
However, you’ll find many critics and reviews framing the music of 2020 in the context of 2020’s many horrible events. As they well should—it’s impossible to remove one’s experience with an album or song from the time when it was released, especially during a year as fraught as this one. Pain and anxiety in music are easy to detect and magnify right now. But Pecknold’s positive poetry within Shore feels even more necessary. His message on the record is a command to seek peace where you can find it, to find your highest place of safety. Pecknold’s own description of such a place in the song “Featherweight” is as reassuring as any line on this steady—at times revelatory—album: “And with love and hate in the balance / One last way past the malice / One warm day is all I really need.” Shore doesn’t ask much of us—it merely shines into the room where you’re sitting, bringing in light like early morning sunbeams.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.
Watch Fleet Foxes perform in 2008 via the Paste vault: