During the first few months of quarantine, indie folk band Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold struggled with songwriting. Bored, exhausted and uninspired, he started going for long drives through upstate New York. All of a sudden, the pieces clicked into place: “It was kind of like I was going around collecting rocks … I’d come back home and I’d have this row of lyrics,” Pecknold told The Guardian. Over time, those drives evolved into Fleet Foxes’ fourth album, “Shore” — a gentle 54-minute collection of indie-folk. Pecknold’s new writing process has clearly had a strong influence on this album. While earlier Fleet Foxes’ releases like “Crack-Up” and “Helplessness Blues” were filled with nervous energy, “Shore” itself sounds like a long, aimless drive — introspective and wandering, with each song fusing seamlessly into the next and exuding confidence.
In a moment when it would have been easy to release a gloomy, downbeat collection of songs, Fleet Foxes have instead composed an almost ceaselessly uplifting album. If “Shore” has any single theme, it’s the inclination to find peace in chaos or, as Pecknold put it in the album’s release statement, it's the sort of work that “celebrates life in the face of death.” This is a difficult balancing act, but the band manages to keep the record from falling into pointless escapism, anchoring its uplifting melodies to serious anxieties to create a powerful cathartic release. On the minimalistic acoustic tune “I’m Not My Season,” the band directly addresses the question of where to find happiness in troubled times. Behind the song’s delicate strumming, Pecknold comes up with a resolute rejoinder to keep yourself from being defined by your circumstances, insisting that “time’s not what I belong to/And I’m not the season I’m in.”
While “I’m Not My Season” strips away everything but a single acoustic guitar and Pecknold’s voice, many of the album’s other songs create an impressively expansive sound by mixing glimmeringly clean production with complex instrumentation. This free-flowing style is revealed almost immediately on the opening track “Wading in Waist-High Water,” which begins with a slow guitar line seemingly designed to evoke the noise of gentle waves before suddenly being blown wide-open by a piano, horns and triumphant vocals. The album continues to pick up speed from there. “Sunblind” builds momentum relentlessly, riding a bobbing bassline from one chorus to the next while throwing lyrical references to a number of the band’s musical inspirations who have passed away — from Elliott Smith to David Berman to Otis Redding. It is followed by “Can I Believe You,” whose impassioned guitar riff and choral harmonies combine into what might be the record’s catchiest piece and an impressive testament to the band’s hook-writing abilities.
Essential to many of the album’s best moments is the band’s rhythm section, which is far more developed than in most folk acts, and more than capable of injecting the songs with urgency when necessary. On “Maestranza,” the bass and drums create an irresistibly head-bobbing effect while supporting an ethereally looping guitar as it spirals higher and higher to meet Pecknold’s bombastic vocals. Meanwhile, the forward momentum they provide on tracks like “Young Man’s Game” and “A Long Way Past the Past” almost seem to move the album into the rock genre.
This isn’t to say that “Shore” lacks quieter moments though — and the smooth transitions between moods constitute one of the album’s most significant strengths. On “Featherweight,” the band moves the drums into the background, hushes the vocals and swaps into a minor key to produce a beautiful, reflective piece. The song sees Pecknold releasing his anxieties amidst bursts of piano: “all this time I’ve been hanging on … I was staging life as a battleground” he sings, before joyously deciding to let “the last long year be forgiven … one warm day is all I really need.”
Album closer and title track “Shore” is another gentle moment. Inspired by an accident in which Pecknold almost drowned before returning to shore, it emanates the mixed emotions of comfort, nervousness and disbelief that inevitably follow any near-disaster.
Altogether, “Shore” is a clear triumph and a spectacular collection of songs. Utilizing the full range of Fleet Foxes’ artistic skills — from soaring choruses to restrained self-reflection, from sleek production to buoyant optimism — this album stands out as a monument to serenity and self-actualization. In the midst of a global pandemic and a nerve-wracking election season, listening to this album can feel like coming to shore.