Although credited as the second studio release by Indie folk-rock outfit Fleet Foxes since their reunion in 2016, the name is a bit of a misnomer. For all intents and purposes, Fleet Foxes’ Shore is a Robin Pecknold solo project, recorded without input from the rest of the band due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pecknold was of course always the band’s key player, writing all the songs himself, but due to Pecknold’s desire to finish the album, it was recorded with a completely different line-up of musicians. The new line-up notably includes Grizzly Bear’s Christopher Bear on drums and The Westerlies’ horn section.
Pecknold’s desire to get back to recording is articulated on the album’s title track, which closes the album, singing: “Afraid of the empty, but too safe on the shore, and ‘fore I forget me, I want to record.” On this same track Pecknold alludes to recently departed contemporaries such as John Prine, and David Berman of Purple Mountains, invoking the tragedy of creative energy lost and unexpressed. The song “Sunblind” is fully devoted to tributing these artists and others who have influenced Pecknold and then passed away, resulting in one of the album’s most moving moments:
“For Berman too, I’ve met the myth hanging heavy over you, I loved you long, you rose to go, beneath you songs, perfect angels in the snow.”
In the absence of his bandmates, and now in the company of a new label Anti-Records, Pecknold takes the project in a direction that is decidedly more indie rock and less folk-influenced. The sound of Shore is warmer, cleaner and wealthier than on past Fleet Foxes records, lacking their earlier rustic and eccentric fireside temperature. The tracks of Shore have little white space, and have layered palettes and fast tempos, resulting in a more conventional rock sound than Fleet Foxes’ past records. On “Can I Believe You”, more than 400 voices, recruited via Instagram, lend their voices to the backing choir.
Pecknold’s songwriting always begins from the melody, and the lyrics are written to match the sound of the music and the emotions stirred by it. This often results in slippery lyrical imagery, often returning to more personal perspectives on themes rather than tightly focused or conceptual songs. The recurring imagery of beaches, shorelines, bonfires and other open, outdoor spaces contribute to the autumnal, sweatered atmosphere typical to Fleet Foxes’ oeuvre.
“Going-to-the-Sun Road” and “For a Week or Two” envisage a retreat from urban stressors, to a more rambling state of consciousness. However, still with a driving sense of purpose through the often up-tempo major-key instrumentals, as if the journeys into the wilds are fulfilling long-deferred pilgrimages.
The common allusions to death are paralleled by similarly downbeat, yet strangely optimistic political and ecological themes on songs like “Featherweight” and the cool, Celtic-sounding “Quiet Air/Gioia”. Perhaps such optimism is hard to share, but there is a definite sense of the temperature of the times as Pecknold sings:
“May the last long year be forgiven […] we’ve only made it together, feel some change in the weather, I couldn’t, though I’m beginning to.”
Although it’s clearly a very personal project for Pecknold, Fleet Foxes fifth album lacks much of the sonic personality that defined their earlier and best work, with less punch and verve. There are more musical elements in each song, but each one feels immediately less dramatic and essential than the more stripped back and spotlight moments of an album like Helplessness Blues.