For a band that’s made a career out of stubbornly resisting the ephemera of contemporary culture, Fleet Foxes have also been uniquely adept at crystallizing the mood of their generation. Released in June 2008, Fleet Foxes’ rustic self-titled debut arrived two months before Barack Obama became the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. In 20 years, when hacky film directors seek musical shorthand for the mix of hope, fear, and earnestness of the Obama 1.0 era, I suspect they will reach for the honeyed harmonies, beatific melodies, and surging dynamics of “Ragged Wood,” “Sun It Rises,” or some other song from that first Fleet Foxes LP.
Much like the folk boom of the Kennedy ’60s, Fleet Foxes epitomized both a youthful idealism about “what really matters” and a reassuring, tradition-oriented Americana that soothed rising anxiety about this country’s waning political and economic power during the George W. Bush years. Fleet Foxes, to many, sounded like a clarion call for a new era. Along with Bon Iver, they inspired a folk boom-let in the late ’00s and early ’10s — some of these bands proved to be better-looking and more popular (Mumford & Sons) or were just generic and malleable enough to function better as pop music (The Lumineers, The Head & The Heart).
But none of them were ever quite as emblematic as Fleet Foxes, who once again tapped into the generational zeitgeist with their second album, 2011’s Helplessness Blues. Whereas Fleet Foxes was the “hope and change” record, Helplessness Blueswas the “disillusionment” record, the inevitable crash after three years of Obama failing to curb a burgeoning sense of national inadequacy. “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see,” sings Robin Pecknold on the title track — was “snowflake” in this context a knowing self-own, or was Pecknold somehow anticipating the go-to liberal-millennial taunt of Trump bots and Fox News blowhards in the years to come?
After the tour for Helplessness Blues concluded in 2012, Fleet Foxes went dark, and the indie gaggle of bearded back-to-the-landers subsequently shaved and started tweeting about the transcendence of Carly Rae Jepsen. That same year, recently departed Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman rechristened himself Father John Misty, and became the new decade’s face of hip folk-rock.
As the years accumulated in the wake of Helplessness Blues, Tillman constructed a persona that in many ways felt like a critique of his former band. This seems plain enough when you listen to the records — Father John Misty songs sometimes resemble Fleet Foxes songs with a caustic social critic cracking snarky jokes over the top of them. But Tillman has also more or less admitted in interviews how the sensitive introspection of Fleet Foxes pushed him toward the bombastic irreverence of the Misty persona, as he told the blog Aquarium Drunkard in 2012: “In a critical, singular, mind-altering moment of clarity, [I] became aware of this giant, blatantly fraudulent contradiction between my internal narrative, my conversational voice, my sense of humor –- and singing about my pain like a fucking decrepit wizard.” I’ll let the reader make their own conclusions about whether Pecknold circa 2011 resembles a Lord Of The Rings character.
On Friday, Fleet Foxes will release their first album in six years, Crack-Up. I’ve had a promotional copy for a few months now, and to my surprise I’ve returned to Crack-Up continually during that time for comfort and solace. At the height of Fleet Foxes evangelism among the indie set nearly a decade (!) ago, I was a resolute agnostic, for reasons I can’t quite recall. Perhaps I was sensitive about being typecast — I am, after all, a hirsute white male who really likes the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, which by default makes me painfully self-conscious about my demographic group’s cultural identity. (Robin Pecknold is also afflicted with this problem.) Or maybe I was over-reacting, unfairly, to all of the squeaky-clean folk-rock groups that followed in Fleet Foxes’ wake.