Fleet Foxes’ rustic neo-folk music and skybound harmonies loomed large over indie-ish rock in the early 2010s, not unlike the way Arcade Fire touched the mid-2000s or Pavement shaped the Nineties. Their last album, 2017’s correctly titled Crack-Up, was a stranger listen than usual for them, proggily ambitious and often opaquely sprawling. With Shore, their newly released fourth album, they’ve wandered back to the campfire, except only now it’s a world on fire: “We’re a long way from the past/I’ll be better off in a year in two,” Robin Pecknold sings on “A Long Way Past the Past,” a stately slab of “Hey, man, let’s keep it together” guitar grace. So what do you do in times like these? You soothe our worried minds and fraying souls with some gorgeous-as-fuck artisanal splendor.
Pecknold is back in his sweet-leaf safety zone here, fighting off the pandemic-etc. sads with an extremely songful record that doesn’t dilute any of the compositional detail that marked Crack-Up. Where that album seemed to map a fragmented mind, Shore is much gentler-feeling, and even if you’ve been the kind of mellow-harshing grinch who has at times found the Fleeties’ golden-beard aesthetic a little silly, the beauty here is essentially undeniable. It’s hard to find faults when you feel like you’re floating in an amniotic fluid of autumnal pleasantness.
Pecknold’s production pulls off a neat trick. The songs are smooth as Seventies radio staples, yet he’s in love with highbrow techniques from experimental sources: off-kilter bits of sonic filigree that are grafted into songs at unexpected points, chamber music instrumentation, minimalist composition and vocal arranging, and even some musique concrète (the chirping birds at the end of “Maestranza” sound a little like the ones at the beginning of Yes’ Close to the Edge: a debt repaid). The result is a kind of avant-garde soft-rock. “Featherweight” suggests a conservatory-schooled America or Bread; “Jara” imagines comfort-rock dusty-jean-jacket grandeur as sculpted by Phillip Glass. “Cradling Mother, Cradling Women” really goes for it, opening with some studio chatter from the Pet Sounds boxset, before taking off into a orchestral-pop-rock swirl that definitely earns its Brian Wilson sample clearance.
The lyrics don’t have as much as going on as the music, but they fit it nicely, circling around the theme of fighting off life’s dissonant harshness with its everyday wonder, or at least finding the momentary balance between them. In the extensive statement released with the album, Pecknold writes about how he wanted to make something that honored his departed musical heroes, whom he lists in depth on the dreamily ascending “Sunblind” — from Elliott Smith to Arthur Rusell to David Berman of Silver Jews to Nick Drake to Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield — over music that almost seems to reach heaven itself in search of a symbolic high-five from the gods. Berman is mentioned again on the title track, as is John Prine. The breezily rocking “Young Man’s Game” inverts this notion of communing with the greats, kicking off with an allusion to Husker Du’s New Day Rising before moving on to Arthur Lee of Love and James Joyce (quite a trinity). Here, the theme is that sometimes it’s OK to shrug off the burden of coolness, greatness, and deepness and just be you: “I could pass as erudite/But it’s a young man’s game,” Pecknold sings.
Luckily, all this grandeur never spirals out of hand. Along with being a uniquely ambitious work, this is also the catchiest Fleet Foxes album. The longest track on the record clocks in at just five minutes; like Pecknold’s holy grail, Pet Sounds, these songs compact their expansiveness into immediate pop packages that underscore the album’s sense that the best way to beat back misery and doubt is simple human connection. See “I’m Not My Season,” a sublime acoustic song about savoring fleeting moments of love and beauty, or the John Lennon-esque hunger for meaning and truth that runs through “Can I Believe You,” or the way Pecknold’s actual indie rock buddies help out on the album, from Kevin Morby to Hamilton Leithauser, who appears on two tracks singing with his family. The first voice on the record isn’t even Pecknold, it’s newcomer Uwade Akhere, who sings the evanescent “Walking In Waist-High Water.”
It’s possible to imagine a whole other Fleet Foxes narrative right now, where the band responds to 2020 with a geyser of mushy angst and overweening artsiness. Instead, Pecknold has come up with a pleasing album about letting go and being thankful for what we’ve got, be it love in a time of quarantine or an old Silver Jews record. When you’ve got a song on your album called “Quiet Air/Gioia,” and it’s every bit as pretentious as that title suggests and yet in no way sucks, you’ve done your artistic betters proud.