If I didn’t know anything about Fleet Foxes and someone had to describe them to me – no doubt using words like “folky”, “Americana”, “Brian Wilson”, “beards” and, worst of all, “Josh Tillman” – I would immediately despise them on principle and refuse to let them ever darken my ears. Fortunately it’s far too late for that and, ever since the moment I first heard their debut back in 2008, ours has been an unlikely love affair, a romance that has survived several of my most firmly held musical prejudices and even the foul presence of the ridiculous Father John Shitey.
Following 2017’s lovely-but-obtuse comeback album Crack-Up, FF mainman Robin Pecknold has put his time on lockdown to good use and delivered a record that – and I never thought I’d say this – is as good as, if not better than, that debut album. In fact I’d go so far as to say that, with a bit of judicious pruning taking it down from 15 tracks to 10, the betting for the best album of the 2020s would already be closed. Yes, it’s that good.
Where Helplessness Blues was a classic difficult second album (albeit a very good one), and Crack-Up bravely experimental and lyrically dense, Shore sees Pecknold return to the territory of his debut record, melding sublime songwriting, soaring harmonies and lyrics of such empathetic warmth and generosity they’d make me puke if anyone else had written them. Exhibit A, ‘Sunblind’, the best song of the band’s career (yes, even better than ‘Mykonos’, ‘Your Protector’ or ‘White Winter Hymnal‘), an absolutely sublime, shimmering tribute to musical influences now long dead – “All that you’ve loaned won’t be kept inside a grave…In your rarefied air I feel sunblind”. Jesus, it’s fucking beautiful, transcendent, it should be number one across the planet and if everyone was drip-fed it for the next week COVID, Trump and the Tory government would all disappear and we’d get our bloody lives back. Sorry, got a bit carried away there. But it’s great.
And it’s not alone. ‘Can I Believe You’ may be about romantic doubt or a lack of creative confidence, but it’s set to a soaring, yearning tune and some beautifully chiming guitars. ‘Young Man’s Game’ is absolutely wonderful guitar pop, even though the idea of a 34-year old using the phrase ‘it’s a young man’s game’ makes me feel even older than I do already, so thanks for that. And ‘Quiet Air/Gioia’ may have the same lyrical impenetrability of much of Crack-Up (“I’ll be alone in the corduroy heath/I’ll wait a long time till the hard rain is over/You’re alone and you’re calling on me/I’m underneath my canopy colder” and so on) but frankly, when a tune sounds this good he could be singing extracts from Boris Johnson’s long forgotten 2004 novel 72 Virgins and it would still sound absolutely heavenly.
There are surprises here too, whether it’s the rhythmically complex ‘Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman’ or the utterly charming ‘Maestranza’, a lovely bit of neo-soul that channels that 70s Bill Withers sound and marks out a potential new direction for a band often unfairly perceived as musically predictable and unadventurous.
If you dislike Fleet Foxes as much as I probably should then there’s little here to change your mind. Yes, it’s folky, and a lot of it sounds like Brian Wilson (I like Brian Wilson, I just seem to dislike most artists who sound like Brian Wilson), and there are no doubt beards involved (possibly my most illogical musical prejudice given that I actually HAVE A BEARD); but it’s also absolutely fucking brilliant. And of course Father John Shitey isn’t on it, which always earns an album a few extra points from me.