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?