Fleet Foxes on the Existential Shore

Chad Ashby

“And you’re not the season you’re in.”

I pressed play, and these words—from Fleet Foxes’ “I’m Not My Season,” on their new album Shore—eddied toward me on the record’s gentle tide like a healing benediction. The past seven months have stripped us of so many of the trappings we once used to define ourselves: jobs, church, hobbies, relationships, school, even sports! Laid bare, we’ve been forced to wrestle afresh with the question that lies beneath the armor of activities, affiliations, and accomplishments.

Who am I?

Glimmering like a distant lighthouse, the fourth studio album from Fleet Foxes searches for us on the shore of our existential insecurities and beckons us to swim toward the great unknown.

The band’s 15-track offering is its most accessible work to date, but it felt incongruent to its lead singer in the early stages of the project. “I had this optimistic music but I’d been writing these kind of downer lyrics and it just wasn’t gelling,” Robin Pecknold told Apple Music. In fact, it was quarantine that brought him lyrical clarity. He began to cope with isolation by taking daylong drives from his New York apartment to the shore of Lake Minnewaska.

The album’s prelude, “Wading in Waist-High Water,” feels like the rediscovery of an old truth. The rising din of reverberant strings supports the lilt of guest singer Uwade Akhere as she summons her listeners to the common shore of music: “Loose-eyed in morning / Sunlight covered over . . . And we're finally aligning / More than maybe I can choose . . .” Pecknold first heard Akhere, a student at his alma mater, covering the band’s “Mykonos” on Instagram and felt her “easy and textured” voice would make the perfect invitation.

Cut off from churches, concerts, and stadiums, many of us are realizing with Fleet Foxes that music is actually one of life’s necessities. Music breaks through existential isolation. Harmony resembles, indeed creates, a sense of togetherness—a commonality that has something to do with who I am. I am like—I am with—others.

“Sunblind” in the dawn, Pecknold reconnects with cherished albums from his past. The jangle of happy keys tell the story of a carefree weekend spent with a Martin acoustic frolicking through the Elysian Fields with the likes of Elliott Smith and Richard Swift. In addition to Elliott, the folk genius who tragically passed in 2003, and Swift, a producer/multi-instrumentalist who died in 2018, Pecknold praises his pantheon of legends: “And in your rarified air I feel sunblind / I'm looking up at you there high in my mind / Only way that I made it for a long time . . .”

Fleet Foxes have always had a vocal thickness to their music. During quarantine, they took things to another level, blending close to 500 individual vocal tracks submitted on Instagram into a choir for “Can I Believe You?” This synthetic assemblage points to the deep human need for a sense of belonging—that my voice, my life, my experience is not one of paranoid isolation but is intimately connected to something outside myself.

The album searches for us on the shore of our existential insecurities and beckons us to swim toward the great unknown.

For Fleet Foxes, the rediscovery of self begins in the great outdoors. With a gentle heartbeat of the drum, a warm chorale beckons us to “Some lost coast . . . Piece of wheat in your teeth / Carrying water, pears, and bread” (“For a Week or Two”). A week or two spent in the vastness of nature has a way of bringing us “close to some surrender / You can feel it at your feet.” Standing under open skies, we cannot help but echo the deep questions of existence as the psalmist did: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”

Standing on some forgotten shore, the query appears on the crest of every wave: Who am I?

These days many of us are trying to return to a new normal, getting back to old experiences, haunts, and jobs—and they feel strange. It’s a bit like trying on a favorite t-shirt that got lost behind the washer for a couple years. After all this time, that’s not who I am anymore.

When things are going well, the temptation is to define ourselves by our windfalls. I’m an up-and-coming entrepreneur! I’m a new father! I’m the pastor of a thousand-member church! But the winds of time shift. This year has reminded us how quickly a successful job can evaporate, thriving church programs can shrivel, and family members can pass away. When the summer light turns to “a winter-long wind,” who am I then?

Fleet Foxes encourage us not to mistake what is currently happening to us for us. Time is like wind on a sail. Over a harpsichord’s calming rhythm, Pecknold comforts, “Time’s not what I belong to,” and despite “the pall coming off our cheeks” and the chill of deadly winds, we can “move lightly in the dawn / Try to, lightly ever on the lee” (“I’m Not My Season”). Whatever you are currently experiencing—good or ill—this much is true: “You’re not the season you’re in.”

The quest for personal significance ends at the “Shore.” After a long drive, we get out to stretch our legs, setting foot in the chilly wet sand, gazing off into the horizon. On the album’s quiet postlude, we find ourselves standing side by side with Pecknold. Over the brush of gentle snare, burst of sunny brass, and crash of distant cymbals, we feel the significance of the moment: “Afraid of the empty, but too safe on the shore . . .” (“Shore”)

Ultimately, the journey toward personal understanding brings us to a leap of faith. As we feel the sands of time slowly eroding from beneath our feet, the decision to jump into the vast Unknown is now or never. As for Pecknold, “I remember hoping I'd remember nothing / Now I only hope I'm holding onto something.” The human soul was made to hold onto something. In other words, the question who am I? is actually a question of faith: What—or Who—am I holding onto?

Sinking into the briny harmony of the ocean of humanity, we fight toward the surface long enough to gasp into the expansive universe, “Can I believe you? Can I believe you?” (“Can I Believe You?”) Like Peter sinking below the waves, we discover our eternal worth is not ultimately in our ability to hold on, but in the hand that takes hold of us, saying, “You of little faith . . . Why did you doubt?

Topics: Music