by Kevin Holowack
Fleet Foxes not only had a huge impact on my adolescence, I also aged with them. Cliché as it sounds, I’ve often said Helplessness Blues, released in 2011, feels like the soundtrack to my adult life thus far.
I’m not alone in thinking this. It’s an album that, for many people, captures something about the condition of contemporary twenty-somethings, the titular song containing some of the most memorable (for better or for worse) lines in twenty-first century music:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me.
While “mainstream” North American culture pushes individualism, personal achievement, the accumulation of wealth, and so on, as the pursuits of a life well lived, Fleet Foxes turn away to write about living and labouring in obscurity, an ode to anti-individualism.
But just as some formulations of the “American Dream” contain the inherent paradox that if everyone is unique then no one is unique, “Helplessness Blues” offers no clear-cut path toward quiet anonymity. In struggling to turn away from society, we acknowledge society’s power over us. “If I had an orchard, I’d work ‘til I’m raw,” they conclude before immediately glancing back at the hopeless American idealism they chose to leave behind: “And someday I’ll be like the man on the screen.”
Anxiety, and specifically the anxiety of becoming an adult in the modern world, is the driving theme of Helplessness Blues as a whole. General worries about death in “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” becomes more specific questions about parenthood and the nature of the afterlife in “Montezuma” (“So now I am older than my mother and father/ When they had their daughter/ Now what does that say about me?”); “Battery Kinzie” and “Lorelai” reflect (though rather obliquely) on a troubled past relationship that can’t be overcome; “Someone You’d Admire” concerns the singer’s disappointment over time’s inability to change him into a better person; “The Shrine/ An Argument” is an epic number that touches again on failed relationships, linking them, somehow, to a sense disquieting sensual possessiveness (“Green apples hang from my green apple tree/ They belong only to, only to me”).
The songs are extremely introspective. As words on a page, they may even come across as egotistical or solipsistic. This trap is overcome, however, by the musical arrangements, which provide a textured setting on which the existential drama takes place and allow the listener an access point.
As in the debut, the music evokes scenery—but unlike before, there is no opportunity to hide away in it. If Fleet Foxes was about longing for its own sake, a rejection of the present, then Helplessness Blues is a paradoxical exploration of how to reject the present while standing directly in the midst of all its slings and arrows.
Years later, a reviewer for Pitchfork media observed that Fleet Foxes seem to have aged in reverse, from the “soul-serenity” of the debut to “post-grad anxieties” of Helplessness Blues. Inversely, Robin Pecknold, the frontman and songwriter of the band, recently shirked off the aura of sagacity of the first album by dismissing it as “pure RPG fantasy,” and passed disparaging remarks on the line in “Helplessness Blues” about wanting to work in an orchard.
I disagree with both comments. I prefer to see the second album as shift to reality, a group of artists wrestling more directly with late-capitalism and its effect on our psyche. The question becomes: What happens to the naïve longing (the “RPG fantasy,” if you will) when it’s forced to inhabit the real and sometimes ugly world called modern society.
What emerges is a kind of balanced tension between what is and what isn’t/ might be.
In an interview with Pitchfork not long after Helplessness Blues was released, Robin Pecknold was asked what he thought about Fleet Foxes’ image as a “back-to-the-land band.” His response was that Seattle and Portland in particular, and the West Coast in general, were the spaces the second album were intended to evoke—i.e. not the archetypical “land” often associated with them.
The comment encourages us to consider that reflected in the Fleet Foxes’ sound is not a landscape, but a cityscape. It raises an overlooked and, to me, interesting question about the role of the city—and, by proxy, urban life, urban pressures, urban noise—in the music of Fleet Foxes. Or rather, the “city” as standing in for a more general modern condition.
If Fleet Foxes offer something like a way to “long” productively, this “longing” is related to the attempt to achieve harmonious beauty and conduct lyrical reflections of one’s self in modern society.
In an article entitled “That Was Then, This is Now: Recycling Sixties Style in Post-9/11 Music,” Jeffrey Roessner suggests that modern folk revival (or “freak folk”) bands like Fleet Foxes mark the genre’s turn away from the hard-line activism associated Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and others. Fleet Foxes, Roessner says, “eschew activism” in favour of “poignant lyricism” that rings as “solace in the face of loss and the attempt to recover an enduring, mystical beauty.”
At first glance, Roessner’s analysis may be read as a reproach against musicians adopting introspective subject matter in lieu of social concerns. But it isn’t. While not explicitly hopeful about folk music’s potential to enact change, Roessner does point out that artists like Fleet Foxes are productively heretical, not unlike the way Bob Dylan himself was heretical in the mid-sixties when he put aside acoustic instrumentation and protest themes in favour of electric guitars and surrealist lyrics.
But just as Dylan’s masterpiece “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” rung true because of its existential confusion and undirected viciousness, Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues rings true because of its reluctance to engage in a social climate that is often over-saturated with messages.
A call to turn inward is today indispensable.
It’s not incidental that Fleet Foxes make frequent references to a poem that explores precisely the role of emotion and imagination in a modern city—W.B. Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
The story goes that, on one grey day in London in 1888, a young Yeats was walking down the street and encountered a shop window displaying a small fountain bubbling water, which reminded him vividly of Country Sligo in Ireland, where he’d spent much of his early childhood, and an island there called Innisfree.
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is a daydream about living a life of hermitage and self-sufficiency on an island in a lake which, although referred to as “Innisfree,” has nothing to do with the geographical island of the same name. Yeats’s island is a product of his imagination, though concocted with such elegance that it’s feels appropriate to call it mythical. It has a “small cabin of clay and wattles made,” “nine bean rows and a hive for the honey bee,” and a “bee-loud glade.” Yet in the third and final stanza, the “real” world resumes it’s stranglehold on the idealized one of poet’s imagination and, appropriately, the richly evocative language is flattened into prosaic urbanism:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Fleet Foxes make two explicit reference to Yeats’s poem. First in “Bedouin Dress” (“Just to be at Innisfree again/ All of the sirens are driving me over the stern”) and again at the end of “The Shrine/ An Argument” (“I will lay down in the sand and let the ocean lee/ Carry me to Innisfree like pollen on the breeze”).
What’s lacking in any language that I can think of is a word with the haunting depth of saudade or sehnsucht that contains the implication that the emotion is distinctively modern. A twenty-first century longing? A late-capitalist longing? A longing in the face of urban pandemonium, over-population, digital technology, and aggressive advertising and other attempts at brainwashing? A word for such an emotion could not even have existed until relatively recently.
Yeats himself is purported to have said, long after his imaginary forays into Innisfree, that “Our longing…for something other than Reality is what dissatisfies us.” This goes without saying, of course, if longing is associated with an unhealthy attachment to someone or something. But what if it isn’t? What if we can instead construe “longing” as artistically productive, if we can laden in with images, symbols, and sounds that are remedial to us? What if we can even feel this longing as beautiful for its own sake?
In part one of this article, I proposed a way of thinking about words as “boundary projects,” or things with ever-shifting meanings and associations depending on our and our community’s usage of them.
Expanding on this model, I propose that words may be viewed as constellations. I borrow this word from the philosopher Theodore Adorno who suggested that, over time, “concepts…‘gather around’ the unique history of the object where this history makes the object the unique thing that it is.” The implications of this model, at least for philosophers, is that it allows us to see objects both as subjective and objective. The stars remains static—it is only the lines we draw between them that change over time.
To put it more simply, an “object” (be it a physical object or an emotion) can be imagined as a star, among a perhaps infinite number of other stars. If we look closely, we can form a picture out of them, which is a concept. The concept of “love” contains “stars” like the idea romance, the shape of hearts, feelings of happiness, the colour red, and so on.
The constellation of “longing” is either far more complex, or else undeveloped, depending on who’s looking for it, because when the concept is encountered, it is generally in more obscure or poetic contexts.
Both times Fleet Foxes evoke Innisfree, it is offered as an alternative to modernity, from the anxiety that comes with ageing, societal messages, or, literally, noise. But like in Yeats’s poem, Innisfree dissipates as soon after it appears. It’s appropriate that the last movement of “The Shrine/ An Argument” is a cacophonous and atonal bass clarinet solo.
There’s a link between longing-in-modernity and ephemerality. On this subject, I find some insight in the works of philosopher Walter Benjamin.
In a 1939 essay called “Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin looks at the works of nineteenth century French poet Baudelaire to investigate whether “lyric poetry” (or poetry that is generally subject-oriented, observational, and emotional) has any function under late-capitalism.
Benjamin argues that the Paris of Baudelaire’s day, inhabited as it was by a faceless and transient “crowd,” had grown inhospitable to lyric poetry, which had traditionally taken as its subject something other than simply “man’s [sic] life in society.” But Baudelaire succeeded because, as the archetypical poet-flâneur, he inhabited the crowd but did not emulate it, identified with it and at the same time refused to be it. It should be noted that the metropolitan “crowd” in this context is no group in particular, but an “amorphous crowd of passer-bys” that exists only in relation to the person thinking about it.
Baudelaire took the crowd as both his opponent and his subject matter and, by proxy, his ally. One way he did so is through an inversion of traditional themes: for example, not of “love at first sight, but at last sight.” Writing from within the ever-moving masses, the speaking poet is made aware of the disappearance of their subject before the appearance of it (in Baudelaire’s case it was a beautiful woman). In this context, the fate of emotions (love, desire, etc.) is that they are “spared, rather than denied, fulfillment.”
Thus, a perpetual awareness of one’s losses. This is Benjamin’s/Baudelaire’s view of the emotions under late-capitalism.
Has anything changed in the structure of our society, or in our collective psyche, to spares us the condition of flâneurs in nineteenth century Paris? Are modern North American urbanites doomed to be always at a loss, or can we remodel our relationship to the “crowd” to allow room for emotional (or poetic) fulfillment?
Whether they’ve read Baudelaire or not, the “crowd” appears, and under strikingly similar circumstances, in the final verse of Fleet Foxes’ “Bedouin Dress.” In the same song that laments the sound of sirens and expresses the wish to spend just “one day at Innisfree,” we are left with quite a striking scene of the singer encountering someone (a former lover, presumably) in a busy metropolitan space:
On the street one day, I saw you among the crowd
In a geometric pattern dress
Gleaming white just as I recall
Old as I get, I could never forget it at all.
But whereas Benjamin/Baudelaire stresses the fleetingness of images in a “crowd,” Fleet Foxes’ “crowd” gives way to something the speaker has prior experience, and will not forget, and thus stress continuation rather than disappearance. And by pivoting the scene around a deliberately bright image in a presumably grim space, Fleet Foxes emphasize the potential for individuals to be meaningfully responsive to things encountered in the “crowd” if those things are subjectively important to them.
Furthermore, in choosing a unique image like a geometric pattern dress, rather than a clichéd one like a face, they hint at just how complex our emotional constellations can become. For Fleet Foxes, the urban space becomes a site in which—to riff on the metaphor—lines may still be drawn to very distant stars. In this case, to a Bedouin dress, to Innisfree, to a melody played on a violin…
Maybe the way to avoid the condition of Baudelaire is to see objects in the world as permanent stars rather than vanishing faces. In this sense, the urban space—and especially a twenty-first century urban space—becomes an unprecedented site of potential. A collection project, where the objects collected are simply experiences, words, people, images, art. This theory points to a way in which we might be able to see the depth of human emotions to be reflected in urban modernity. The precondition for this is, perhaps, merely astonishment—Are we are all potentially poets on mountaintops?
Helplessness Blues ends on a loose note. In the final song, “Grown Ocean,” the singer appears to fall into a dream from which they promise to someday wake up. “I’ll have so much to tell you about then,” he insists, before the song dissolves into a characteristic a capella that seems to end just a phrase too early.
I, along with fans from around the world, waited six long years for another release from Fleet Foxes. However, they are nothing if not meticulously thoughtful. The six year hiatus—during which time the members either formed other bands, ceased music all together, or went back to school—has been incorporated into the band’s mystique to the point that forums and subreddits abounded in which fans attempted to guess the name, the concept, and the artwork of the new album.
Crack-Up was released in June of last year. Just before the release, Robin Pecknold himself confirmed one fan’s suspicions that the new album resumes exactly where Helplessness Blues ended. What he meant, really, was that the hanging Bb that concludes “Grown Ocean” reverberates through six years of silence to pick up on the F that opens “I Am All That I Need.”
The songs on Crack-Up—which is titled after an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay—live up to their name. The band that was once inescapably “rootsy” now employs an enormous range electronic instrumentation, strings, and audio samples, and draws influences from everyone from Radiohead to Claude Debussy. Critics agree that it’s an impressive feat, and I agree with them.
But here I’m interested in how the new album operates thematically; how it does or doesn’t contribute to the band’s earlier explorations of things like modernity and the longing that happens in it. A question that remains, and which I’m still thinking about, is how, or even if, Crack-Up fulfils the promise of “Grown Ocean” to provide some dream contents.
Yet the answer to that question is obvious—of course it doesn’t.
Crack-Up is an engrossing work of art—musically complex (more so than anything the band has released to date), thematically considerate (with well-fashioned lyrics ripe with literary and historical references), at times even responsive to political and social events (Pecknold has a strong social media presence, and was vocal and outraged after Trump’s election, for instance)—but when it comes to the concept of longing, the six years of silence speak louder than the album. It was a time for the fans to live, too, and—in my case at least—live through some dilemmas illustrated in Helplessness Blues: break-ups, questions about the meaning of life, the struggles of living amidst the crowds.
But perhaps that was the point. If Crack-Up is to be read as a follow-up to Helplessness Blues, it can only be as a resignation. The Fleet Foxes of 2017/18 (who are into their thirties now) appear to have come to terms with earlier existential anxieties by embracing the role of modern artists. That is, artists in a society that places no value on art. Yet artists who no longer dream of labouring on orchards obscurely, nor inhabiting society reluctantly, but who see late-capitalism and its institutions head-on, only to fall inward and apart—
I’m all that I need
And I’ll be ‘til I’m through
That Crack-Up is by far the most self-critical and pessimistic release to date remains something to wonder about. To this day, I can’t decide if this choice was deliberate—an attempt to explore new terrain and new emotions, including disgust and vulnerability—or a result of turning away from their role as modern lyric poets and the perspective of naïve astonishment.
But no matter how much Fleet Foxes attempt to bury past incarnations of themselves, they do so in a way that cleverly maintains a symbolic resonance with their earlier music. A high school choir’s cover of “White Winter Hymnal” is sampled at the end of “Thumbprint Scar,” and various images (a dancer, the ocean, children, a man stoking a fire) find their way over from Helplessness Blues. The “constellation of longing” shows up again and again, reminding us, painfully, of everything we’ve lost or that never was to be had.
All of this suggests that continuity remains Fleet Foxes’ mission, however vaguely, and longing is something they’re unwilling to let go of entirely.
The more I listen Crack-Up, the less I feel sympathy for the overtly relatable themes of disillusionment and millennial angst, and the more I’m inclined to grasp after the idealistic distance in life. The music seems to feel that way, too.
Banner image courtesy of Gandalf’s Gallery