Reflections on Fleet Foxes / The Philosophy of Longing (Part One)

by Kevin Holowack

         The music of Fleet Foxes came into my life when I was sixteen years old. I was riding in the backseat of a car in a woody subset of the north Edmonton suburbs when someone in the passenger seat put in their 2008 debut album Fleet Foxes.

         The album begins with a hazy a capella introduction about red squirrels, a brief pause, and then reverberates with the sagacious chords of “Sun It Rises,” almost loud enough to paint over the crush of rubber on gravel. I was hit with a mysterious desire to leap out the window, into the trees, and disappear. Or, just as well, for everything to disappear except me and the trees, and whatever car-less, house-less, technology-less country I suddenly knew was lying just behind them.

Then the words came, straightforward and wonderfully naïve:

Sun rising

Over my head

In the morning

When I rise.

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        The fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch is often credited with being the first person in history to climb a mountain (Mont Ventoux in France) simply to experience the view. “Petrarchan” thus takes on several meanings. As much as it denotes a form of the sonnet that he developed and popularized, it designates, to me, a change in perspective, a re-enchantment of things that were there all along. Astonishment for its own sake.

        I’m tempted to apply the word Petrarchan to a song like “Sun It Rises” and, for that matter, the rest of the Fleet Foxes’ debut. It’s an easy fit, as the album is thick with images of animals and landscapes, delicately arranged instrumentation, the guitars and drums themselves operating as a kind of lyric. Like much Renaissance art—including Brugel’s painting “Netherlandish Proverbs,” which features as the album’s cover art—Fleet Foxes is a celebration of human perspectives, a surfacing of meaning in the scenes of life via an aestheticization of them.

        Thus, the same mental image of a poet standing on Mont Ventoux, tunic stirred by mountain wind, returns to me every time I hear it:

Sun rising

Dangling there

Golden and fair

In the sky.

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          I sometimes justify the reading of old literature on the grounds that when we encounter something written by the dead, we have an opportunity to appreciate the particular beauty that comes with distance. There is mist before the mind’s eye that can only become thicker with time, and it’s this mist that I’m calling beautiful.

Consider a medieval summer:

       “Svmer is icumen in”, sang an anonymous thirteenth century English poet, “Lhude sing cuccu!” (“Summer is coming in. Sing loud, cuckoo!”)

        Whatever sight or event that compelled them to praise the season—a sit on the monastery stoop, a stroll through a quince grove—is irrevocably gone. Even the language used is nearly incomprehensible. At the time, the poet may have felt joy, hope. The sadness I feel in reading these words today would unlikely have been present at the time of writing but is now, at least for me, the dominant feeling.  But it’s a sadness of a different hue than one might feel over an event in the present because it’s coupled with nostalgia—a wish to attain, in this case see and hear, a summer that is many centuries past.

       The fact the one can feel sadness over a vanished cuckoo signals that humans are capable of longing for things that do not exist, or exist only in our imagination.

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       It’s a mysterious quality of music that it can so easily evoke images, whereas images can rarely if ever suggest music. The same could be said of emotions. As delightful as it would be, I’ve never actually heard a tiny violin when a friend enters the room complaining about, say, weather. But violins do sometimes evoke rain. Reverb-heavy guitars on the highest pick-up: snow and ice.

       But perhaps this reveals a point. I’ve come to decide that, although one can seamlessly evoke the other, music and mountain views are not the same thing. It’s a distinction only worth pointing out in light of the fact that there is a long line of thinkers (some of the English Romantics and the American Transcendentalists among them) whose theories often bend to the idea that art is an extension of, or hauntingly rooted in, nature as it is.

        I’m drawn instead to the idea that art—and in this study, music—can evoke what isn’t, or what isn’t yet. In this framework, art is a site of potential, a chance to illuminate an experience that is wholly new to us, or was once new and is now lost. The latter is something the Greeks had an apt word for: alethia, or uncovering. The nature of the “thing” could be political, emotional, or otherwise.

*

          A photograph or a painting is something we encounter all at once, a book is something that enters and exercises our thoughts and emotions—but music is more of a companion. It moves alongside thinking and feeling.

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         One of the best way of listening to music is with headphones in the dark of one’s own room. Canadian poet Lisa Robertson writes: “Reading in the utopia of airplanes is quite total.”

          I respond: “Listening in the utopia of a dark room is quite total, too.” (Not to mention in cars and busses. Music and highways are a heavenly mix.)

          This dark evening, alone with music, I want to think more carefully about the emotion early Fleet Foxes are dealing with. What do you call this—a longing directed toward an imaginary space, or toward an impossibly distant object?

*

           The English language has no word for the emotion at hand, nor do any other language as far as I can tell. “Longing” itself remains exceptionally vague.

           There’s a reason “longing” on its own say so little, but “longing” in conjunction with other words holds some weight. Consider Nietzsche’s (or rather Nietzsche’s translator’s) “Arrows of longing for the other shore” (Thus Spake Zarathustra) or Leonard Cohen’s “Take this longing from my tongue” (“Take This Longing”)

            In my view, something about these phrases works in a way that, for example, “Arrows of love” or “Take this loving from my tongue” would not. In the first, longing is implied to be something with directionality, something that overcomes distance, and even something equated with weaponry or pain; in the second, it is connected with either speech or sensuality. Both lines give us a fuller appreciation of what “longing” might feel like—and both still sound fresh because “longing” is, at least in English, and at least in modern times, a relatively unexplored site of potential.

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            On their debut, as well as on the EP Sun Giant released earlier in the same year, Fleet Foxes draw attention to the beauty of something that—like my human-less, technology-less country behind the trees in the Edmonton suburbs—is invisible to us. Yet they do so, remarkably, using tools only available to twenty-first century artists, which is significant, even hinting that this “invisible object” is a distinctively modern phenomena.

            One tool at Fleet Foxes’ disposal is careful digital processing, which accounts for the band’s elaborately-arranged harmony vocals and distinct reverb-heavy soundscape. Fleet Foxes are a product of their time, at least materially. They’ve famously defended online file-sharing, for instance, and have maintained a fair social media presence. Another modern tool is a set of poetic techniques such as a focused attention to imagery as an end-in-itself (a Modernist development that some might locate at the beginning twentieth century), and a penchant for narrative “vignettes” rather than traditional narrative outright.

            The well-known “White Winter Hymnal” describes what seems like a moment of seeing a someone in a red scarf falling in the snow; “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” depicts strangers wandering into mountain villages as the narrator asks questions about mortality to his own shadow; and “Oliver James” hazily outlines a story of someone adopting a baby they find floating in a river. In these songs, the sense of place is as indistinct as the sense of time. The “Blue Ridge Mountains over in Tennessee,” the English coastal city of Brighton (in “English House”) or the Greek island of Mykonos operate only impressionistically, not unlike the disembodied “New York” that often arises in contemporary music through the sea of collective myth making.

          Nowhere in Fleet Foxes’ opus is there a straightforward plot. It’s the listener who fills in the gaps. As such, the audience becomes the co-creator of the song—It’s an extended invitation that would mean nothing if it weren’t genuine. What we feel when we listen to Fleet Foxes’ music is there because we, the listeners, want it there.

*

         That the majority of Western art is de facto “emotional” rather than propaganda (i.e. Virgil), historical (i.e. Homer), religious, or serving a ritualistic function is undoubtedly a recent development in the grand scheme of things. That artists are believed to have a heightened awareness to human nature was not always the case. Why musicians, actors, and writers are so frequently asked to comment on world affairs, and why we have such faith in their ideas, is an interesting question in its own right. But we can all agree, I believe, that we do put trust in their ideas. And there is a reason why, even if it’s hard to articulate.

         However, my saying that “popular” art’s reliance on emotion is a modern phenomena in no way puts down the importance of it. The inability to hold and express emotions—especially in a society like ours that is direly over-saturated with noise, signs, and messages—may account for why so much emotionally-oriented art continues to be consumed and produced. A kind of medicine in a tragically confused world.

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           Recently I was loitering in a café, waiting for a friend, when I noticed a student sitting at the next table over preparing for a history exam on the subject of the American Civil War. On top of the fact that the café staff were already blasting Nirvana’s Bleach album on repeat, the woman was listening to music on her iPod, texting someone on-and-off, drinking a large and ostensibly complex drink consisting of French vanilla, chocolate sprinkles, and candy cane dust, and unwittingly absorbing the body language of other patrons. She was also, remarkably, still taking notes for her exam

          But I can relate. I think everyone can, to a degree, sympathize with the wish to be over-encumbered with stimuli. To resist focusing on only one, and avoiding the difficulties that come with pronounced attention to what we’re doing in the world.

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          I’d like to propose a model for thinking about the words emotions are supposedly encapsulated by.

         My own philosophy of vocabulary is this: What is being “signified” when we utter a word is liquid, changing moment by moment. This is especially true when referring to things that can’t be touched or measured, like feelings. Anger, happiness, frustration—to each person, these words evoke different memories, induce certain physiological states, hint at colours and sounds. They may even become intrinsically linked to other words that have no linguistic relevance. Hearing the name of an ex could be associated with sadness, for example, even though sadness is nowhere implied in a name. A cello may suggest loneliness to one and nobleness to another.

        To paraphrase philosopher Donna Haraway, objects (physical objects as well as emotional or mental “objects”) are “boundary projects.” What they mean to us is constantly shifting, both from our growing experience with the word and it’s fashioning by society at large.

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        Compared to a commonly used word like “angry,” a word like “longing” is less subject to forces of society simply because it is used less. This implies that what it’s associated with is more dependent on individuals’ chance encounters with it than on how it is deployed in the media or in popular discourse. There is no Hallmark “Day of Longing.”

        However, according to Google Books, although “longing” has generally declined in usage since the 1880s, it is currently on the up-swing. Today it’s at a high that it hasn’t seen since the 1940s.

        But why? What is it about “longing” that appeals to people today? A conclusion one might jump to is that there is, in the twenty-first century, something people wish to express that they didn’t wish to express thirty years go. And there is, I speculate, a rather specific sort of person who would use the word “longing” on a regular basis—people who are generally dissatisfied with the world as it is. There is, in my experience, an enormous overlap between these people and those who identify as artists, art-lovers, poets, and one who thinks too much.

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        Other languages have words that may come closer to describing emotion inhabiting the Fleet Foxes’ debut than English’s rather sloppy “longing.” Closer, but not perfect.

        German’s Wanderlust is not bad—the ineffable desire to leave where one is, to always leave, or otherwise adopt a stance of living “toward” something unknown.

        German also provides Sehnsucht, which is defined variously as a sense of deep incompleteness, a state of melancholic ambivalence or—my favourite—a wish to develop, or acquire, utopia.

        Mono no aware is a Japanese term referring to an emphatically soft sense of melancholy over the fact that nothing is timeless.

        Sevdah in Bosnian is a term referring to a melancholy love, one pierced with forlorn yearning. Sevdalinka is a musical genre devoted to this type of love.

        Then there’s Saudade, a Portuguese word that is occasionally said to be indicative of the Portuguese or Brazilian character and refers to a yearning for something that doesn’t or cannot exist—a longing even for its own sake. (As an aside, although there is no Hallmark “Day of Longing,” there is a Brazil, a “Dia da Saudade” celebrated on January 31st.)

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          Longing for its own sake is, as far as emotions go, rather extreme and misunderstood. It’s the ultimate rejection of the present, but also signals an unwillingness to let go of what the present might be. It’s also, I’d suggest, the groundwork for Fleet Foxes’ second album, Helplessness Blues, released in 2011. It is to that album I will turn our attention in a forthcoming article.