The most notable aspect of Fleet Foxes‘ appropriately titled latest release, Shore, is just how much it sounds like being at the beach. That is true of the deliberately wet songs, such as the rhythmic lapping of the waves on “Wading in Waist-High Water” or the sonic ripples on “I’m Not My Season” with its reference to “roundelay water”. But one can also feel like one’s hanging out at the strand on the Beach Boy-esque “Can I Believe You” and “Going-to-the-Sun Road”. The material as a whole is mellow and gentle on the ears. This is the Pacific Coast, not the boardwalks of New Jersey.
On this record, Fleet Foxes consist mostly of founding member Robin Pecknold, although he’s joined by several guest musicians, including alternative rockers Kevin Morby and Hamilton Leithauser. Pecknold’s offered various reasons for this. The lyrics are personal. Recording with a band in the age of COVID-19 can be difficult. It was just time to make this record this way. And so on. The motive is not necessary to appreciate what was created.
Pecknold understands that less doesn’t always mean more. On “Sunblind”, he namechecks those talents who have died but whose music has been important to him, including Richard Swift, John Prine, Jude Sill, Elliott Smith, David Berman, Ian Curtis, Jeff Buckley, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, and more. The music on this song and the rest of the album has a dense atmosphere. There are a few moments of silence.
Shore is the kind of record meant for listening in a reflective mood. Some of the 15 tracks may rock to a rapid beat. For example, “Cradling Mother. Cradling Woman” moves to a Philip Glass type repetitive tempo, but it’s the sort that makes one bob one’s head more than shake one’s butt. The songs themselves tend to look backward, like the nostalgic “A Long Way Past the Past”, where Pecknold declares, “And my worst old times look fine from here.” That’s a heavy line delivered with a cooing air as if a person naturally would feel that way. The value of this record lies to a certain degree how much believes this statement.
If one can accept the worst about one’s past, then surely the present can’t be bad—or even be good. In our weird world with a global pandemic, radical negative climate change, and political demagoguery, that’s a bold attitude to have. Parkinson knows about the problems. The environmentalism of “Quiet Air / Gioia” with its mentions of glacial melting and forest fires makes this clear. But Parkinson also acknowledges this is the only world we have. It has its beauty. His description of a camping trip on “For a Week or Two” shows his pleasure at surrendering to nature, with the sound of birds chirping noisily in the background. The birds continue peeping on the next track, “Maestranza”. “May the last long year be forgiven,” he asks on “Featherweight”. We can still enjoy what’s here. We only have to pay attention.
After all, it’s never far to the beach. You can sense it from here in your imagination. The shore may be a physical place, but it’s also a metaphor for those people who go in and out of our lives like waves breaking on the seacoast on the title cut. Over a funereal piano and a ghostly whistle, Parkinson mystically proclaims that “When a wave runs me through / As a shore I ever seem to sail to” as if his destination is the journey. What’s that Dylan used to sing, “he who isn’t busy born is busy dying”? Pecknold takes this a step further. We are simultaneously being born and dying, just like the shoreline between the tides.