REVIEW: Fleet Foxes spin a flat start into an elegant end
Written for The Telegraph [28/11/17]
ix years is a long break between albums, certainly for a band who conquered the pastoral-folk scene of the Noughties and sold millions of records along the way. Fleet Foxes' 2008 self-titled debut was a bundle of bucolic ditties that spoke of simpler times. Its 2011 follow-up Helplessness Blues was something of a companion for post-university anxiety. Fronted by Robin Pecknold, the Seattle group’s ornate, harmony-heavy songs earned them spots in both the US and UK top 5 album charts, as well as a Grammy nomination. But in 2012, they disappeared.
Confusion and soul-searching led to a lengthy hiatus following the departure of drummer Josh Tillman (who has since found success as sarcastic troubadour Father John Misty). This was particularly true for the then 28-year-old Pecknold, who in 2013 enrolled at Columbia University to study literature. His “early-onset identity crisis” meant fans had to wait until June of this year for a new album; and London, five years until the band returned to the stage.
Despite the cinematic scope of their latest record, Crack-Up, the six-piece’s sold-out Brixton Academy show on Monday was largely a nostalgia trip, with the crowd suddenly whipping out phones to record White Winter Hymnal, the band’s catchy, nursery rhyme-like 2008 single. After some muddy sound on Crack-Up songs such as I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar, Ragged Wood's foot-stomping percussion, amber acoustics and pristine harmonies provided much-needed vim and vigour. Its full-bodied warmth, replete with audience sing-a-longs, was a turning point, a suggestion that the best was yet to come.
Pecknold, now 31, is an exceptionally quiet frontman. Eyes screwed tight, guitar glued to his chest, he interacted minimally with both his audience and his bandmembers, as the latter flitted effortlessly between instruments. Fleet Foxes’ musicianship is of no question, but their proficiency sometimes posed as self-indulgence.
That was until Pecknold gave something back. Solo performances of Tiger Mountain Peasant Song and Oliver James were as intimate as they come. Pecknold’s mellifluous burr stunned the audience to silence, his voice ringing out against visual projections of shooting stars.
Taking its cue from the band’s new album, the set played out like a film score, with supple blends between and within songs. Meascapra evolved into a Pentangle-esque prog folk wig-out, while the band made light work of their shifting, avant-garde ode to a breakup on The Shrine/An Argument.
It was still clear, however, that the crowd was hungry for Fleet Foxes’ more easily digestible songs. The Sun Giant EP favourite Mykonos was joyfully anthemic, and Helplessness Blues, with its message of accepting that you are no “snowflake”, spoke a sour though enlightening truth to the millennial audience. But the crowd didn’t care, arms aloft, bellowing the lyrics back in proud defiance. Six years was worth the wait.