“Third of May / Ōdaigahara" and the Evolution of Fleet Foxes
By Alex Kon
After six years of hiatus, indie folk band Fleet Foxes has released the first single from their upcoming third LP, Crack-Up. From a personal standpoint, I had no idea of what to expect from the Foxes’ newest venture. Would the gap of time since 2011 have seen the roaring flame of inspiration dim into the last few cracks of fading kindling, or would it be time to step away, reflect, and gather more fuel? It seems that luckily, the latter is the case. By the time Fleet Foxes had reached their peak popularity in the early 2010s, many imitators of their sound had stepped in and filled the gap, leading to the oversaturation of insipid folk-pop bands embarrassingly lacking in self awareness, playing banjos while singing of antiquated tradition despite being upper-middle class city slickers (I need not name any bands). This movement seemed to turn much of the public against the notion of contemporary folk, and in a way, it was better that Fleet Foxes went on hiatus when they did, for it was possible that bias could have gotten in the way as people snapped to quick judgements and tossed them back into the stagnant fen of mediocre folk-pop. Now, in 2017, these sentiments have died down, and with the glut of those imitators having vanished, Fleet Foxes can once again stake a claim to the most interesting and prolific modern folk band, and they have initiated this conquest with the release of the track “Third of May / Ōdaigahara”.
With such a long recording gap, it was really anyone’s guess as to what the new track would sound like. The progression of frontman Robin Pecknold’s songwriting and the instrumentation of the band have travelled along an arc across band’s two LPs and EP. Starting in 2008 with the Sun Giant EP and self-titled debut, the band made an immediate impact with hits “Blue Ridge Mountains”, “Mykonos”, and the often covered “White Winter Hymnal”. While these were excellent releases in their own right, it was still possible to lump the band in lyrically with what would come later. Pecknold wrote songs concerning bucolic depictions of nature and personal relationships, faintly tinged with an almost medieval vibe. The lyrics felt very thematic, and while I would never call them trite -- Pecknold’s talent of conjuring lush imagery was already on display -- there was a certain disconnectedness present in the allegories, and some of the lyrics almost felt forced, seemingly pandering to a romanticization of the anachronistic (many would disagree with my sentiments, however). What truly set the band apart from others was their instrumentation. The songs brimmed with countless layers, as familiar yet unique chord progressions on strummed acoustics were backed by shimmering and punchy electric guitars, giving way to mandolin flourishes, vibrant woodwinds, and of course the gorgeous choral harmonies that the band became known for. The title of “indie folk” was far more fitting of this band than simply “folk”, due in part to this exploration of sounds, giving the genre a much wider palette to paint with. This uniqueness is what makes Sun Giant and Fleet Foxes great but imperfect records. Skip to 2011, and the band had ironed out those flaws with Helplessness Blues. The band showed tremendous growth going into their second LP. The compositions carried much more weight, with Pecknold’s fingerstyle and 12-string guitars evoking the styles of Bob Dylan, Bert Jansch, Roy Harper, and Neil Young, while not copying them. The songs felt less like melodies coupled together with the glue of a lyrical theme, and more like episodic compositions telling a story and conveying emotion through sound and language. The variety of styles present was ever expanding from song to song, and the addition of multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson and drummer/backing vocalist Josh Tillman (who would soon depart the band and adopt the moniker Father John Misty) to the lineup only thickened the band’s sound. Even more, all doubts of Pecknold’s lyrical ability are shed with the record. Gone are the contrived pastoral hymns of earlier, replaced with a brilliant eloquence now wet with a sense of cleverness and duality, aptitude for storytelling through more abstract means, and philosophical musings and themes that are not weighed down with an attitude of pretentiousness, but instead feel like the honest conclusions of a man who has stepped back and decided to take a look at himself, all the while these factors are still cemented in Pecknold’s wonderful imagery. As opposed to a collection of songs, the album breathed as one, and never faltered anywhere across its 12 songs. This unparalleled depth, attention to detail, and honesty has led me to consider Helplessness Blues a perfect record, a fleetingly (ha) rare stature.
So now that six years have passed, how have the Foxes changed? From the moment “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” blasts through your speakers, you are instantly spellbound. Billowing chords carry the lyrics forward as Pecknold explores the strains of relationship, the illusion of free will, and the existence of love and obligation amidst times of war, with vivid imagery evoking that of the windswept shoals of the album’s cover and the aesthetics of painter Francisco Goya’s depiction of the Peninsular War The Third of May 1808, from which the song gets its title. It is immediately noticeable just how colossal the song sounds. Never have Fleet Foxes sounded so, for a lack of a better term, epic. The track ebbs and flows for nearly 9 minutes, with turns lush with philosophical ultimatums and unrelenting crashes of layered guitars and even a pedal steel wringing every last bit of pathos out of the song possible. The sheer density of the track is almost overwhelming, exploding between quiet and incendiary until at its climax, it pulls away to near silence. “I was a fool…” comes Pecknold’s voice, seemingly embodying the song’s character later in time. He reflects solemnly over his choices over the sparse and distant strums of a nylon string guitar, conjuring forth images of an elder hermit, sitting alone in his decrepit cottage upon the crags of the ocean, with the wind picking up into a powerfully chilling spring gale as the song descends into its last movement. Ever so subtle electronic flourishes burst into a dense tempest of plucked notes and chiming piano, a smoke of experimentalism that is borderline musique concrete in just how well it captures elemental forces. As the song finally dies down to a lone wind, and the listener is fully inside themselves, any memory of the early Fleet Foxes a profoundly distant memory.
So, what is “Third of May” when placed next to and given context by the rest of the band’s discography? It shows that Helplessness Blues was but a toe’s dip into unfamiliar waters. We saw the seeds of this on Helplessness Blues’ “The Shrine / An Argument”, an 8 minute multi-movement song that breached new personal depths of songwriting for the and, eventually unraveling into a free form jazz/experimental section. “Third of May” has taken this concept and blended it together in a much more seamless manner. This unlikely lead single represents what is a further evolution of the songwriting of Robin Pecknold and Fleet Foxes, following a progression more akin to Helplessness Blues, but at the same time carving out a new territory, representing a promising future. I would say this track is more of a grower, and due to its overwhelming nature it may take a few listens to gel completely, but once it does, it becomes apparent that this is one of Fleet Foxes’ finest songs yet. It is astonishing just how far this humble indie folk band has journeyed thus far, and from what we can hear, the journey is far from over, and it will certainly be one to remember. Crack-Up will release on June 16th, 2017.