Fleet Foxes’ ‘Shore’ — an ocean of sound
Charlie Kenney | Friday, October 2, 2020
For a record to explicitly tie itself to a place is ambitious. Music occupies a space somewhere outside of the physical. It is much more appropriate, much easier to attempt to tether it to an idea or memory. Places may be involved in those memories, but they rarely become that axis around which an album or song revolves.
Descriptive lyrics can certainly accomplish the task but tend to do so in a halfhearted manner. If an album truly wants to encapsulate the feeling of a physical location, then the music itself, with all its intricacies, has to feel — in one way or another — similar to that place. Bluegrass feels like a Kentucky I’ve never been to and The Beach Boys feel like California even when surfing isn’t the subject matter.
Sound becomes place and place becomes sound when it is done correctly, usually accidentally.
On Fleet Foxes recently released “Shore,” exactly that task is accomplished, in the most difficult manner possible. The record feels like an unnamed shore, tied to no particular continent or ocean, just the convergence of water and sand — the loud roar of the tide and smell of salt in the air. The image is not laden with the footsteps of beachgoers and pierced by errant umbrellas like that evoked by “Surfin’ USA” or a similar album but, instead, a vacant prayer rug of sand — an empty cathedral.
Following the group’s ambitious third album “Crack Up,” “Shore” floats between silence and high, dramatic, voluminous sound rife with traditional folk elements.
“Wading In Waist-High Water” begins the record with a hush before quickly crescendoing to a choir of voices and strings. The rest of the song and the album follow suit, flowing up and down, cascading to highs and lows — like a tide being pulled in and out by the moon’s gravity.
“And we’re finally aligning / More than maybe I can choose,” sings vocalist Uwade Akhere in airy tones. The song is oddly soft while often feeling and sounding loud.
The album’s two most popular tracks follow next, “Sunblind” and “Can I Believe You.” The former is an ode to dead musicians who the past few years have washed away. Richard Swift, John Prine and Bill Withers open the track, quickly followed by mentions of Elliot Smith, Judee Sill and David Berman. A joyous act of remembrance, “Sunblind” acts as a “Great coronation you deserve […] For every gift lifted far before its will.” The song acts similar to its predecessor, bouncing up and down between whispered melody and raucous chorus.
“Can I Believe You” toes a very similar line with a different subject matter and in a much more radio-friendly manner. A song dominated by the words of its title seems to question lead singer Robin Pecknold’s ability to come to terms with his thoughts. An introspective track, it is ostensibly a song about someone else, but the “you” is that part of Pecknold which he doesn’t seem to be able to relate with.
From its strong opening, “Shore” slows down in the middle and even more so as it approaches its terminus. “Jara” opens with an almost electronic sound, sharply contrasting the folk-based, acoustic nature of the rest of the record before fading into the latter. While “Featherweight” feels like its title sounds, with layered vocals creating a melody behind plucked strings that sound like gusts of wind as much as words.
“Maestranza” provides a nice come down from the louder earlier half of the album. A fast-paced and nature-driven song, it begins with the soft songs of birds before Pecknold unfolds lyrics quickly and, in doing so, annunciates words in a manner dissimilar to the rest of the record. “Con-men controlled my fate / No one is holding the whip / And the oil won’t stick / But I will,” talk of some odd bondage while conveying a vibe that the group refers to in an interview with Apple Music as “a disco or roller-skating kind of energy.”
The album closes with the eponymous track “Shore,” and it feels, more than any other, like what it describes. The quick errant beating of drums and cymbals become the crash of waves, but their cacophony is soothing rather than disarming. Loud noise is so overwhelming, so multi-faceted that no one unit of sound can be focused on individually. As a result of the magnitude, it is relaxing like a noiseless yet loud shore.
The album certainly captures a place in sound. Throughout its entirety, one does get the feeling that if an empty beach had a soundtrack, this would be it. But that is not necessarily a good thing, at least in terms of listening quality.
Like much of Fleet Foxes’ music, nearly the entire album sounds similar. Without a tracklist in front of you, it is hard to tell when one song ends and the other begins. Sometimes that is good, such as at the end of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” when each song flows into the next but all maintain a distinct character. On “Shore,” the 15 tracks that compose it aren’t terribly different from one another and seem to mesh together into some puree of folk music.
The album, in my mind, largely acts as an effulgence of sound without distinction, maybe nice to relax to and take in — to imagine oneself as a beach — but also tiring in its homogeneity.
Artist: Fleet Foxes
Favorite Songs: “Wading in Waist-High Water,” “I’m Not My Season,” “Shore”
If you like: Local Natives, The Zombies, listening to ocean sounds to fall asleep
Shamrocks: 2.5 out of 5