Fleet Foxes and Southern Naturalism

10 Dec

One of my favorite bands is Fleet Foxes. I find their elegant songwriting, entrancing harmonies, and southern flavoring reminds me of the 7 years I spent either living in North Carolina or traveling the roads between Cincinnati, OH and Durham, NC. Their music is evocative in all the best ways. When I was driving a grieving friend to a social event and I knew that he needed a musical distraction, I unhesitatingly pushed play on Fleet Foxes’ first album (self-titled). It carried us both away as we drove down the 101 in the bright California sun.

Fleet Foxes (album)

Fleet Foxes (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the character of Fleet Foxes’ vibe conjures the Blue Ridge Parkway for me, their lyrics often suggest a more liberal naturalism than one tends to associate with the U.S. south. They often celebrate quiet moments with nature, as in the chorus from their song Blue Ridge Mountains: “In the quivering forest/ Where the shivering dog rests /Our good grandfather /Built a wooden nest /And the river got frozen /And the home got snowed in /And a yellow moon glowed bright /Till the morning light.” Balancing narrative and visual elements, I can picture that grandfather’s snowbound cabin on the river with its shivering dog under the moonlight on a long winter’s night. The sun and the forest and mountains are ever-present companions in the tunes from the first album. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable paean to nature.

Musically I expected Fleet Foxes to continue to evolve and polish their symphonic style. I worried that they couldn’t keep the delicate harmonies–rustic almost in their barrenness–as their success pushed them to add more production to their music. It’s true that the second major release is a more produced affair, but what surprised me was the way in which many of their lyrics took a huge leap forward. (Often the reverse happens with sophomore efforts where the music is about the same but the lyrics are less fresh. For example, The Strokes‘ debut and sophomore albums or Pearl Jam‘s.) Here are my favorite lyrics from their sophomore album’s title track, “Helplessness Blues”:

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

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
I don’t need to be kind to the armies of night that would do such injustice to you
Or bow down and be grateful and say “sure, take all that you see”
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me

And I don’t, I don’t know who to believe
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak
Yeah I’m tongue-tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?

And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf
I’ll come back to you someday soon myself

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store

Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen

It’s an softer kind of anthem for a generation of young adults caught without a sense of purpose. Told from birth that they were special and unique, they find themselves adrift in a machine that seems to run without them. What if instead they had a clear role, a vital part to play? I imagine many millennials can relate (and if concert and album sales are any indication they do relate). Note the end, though, manual labor in the orchard would give them satisfaction. It’s pride in labor that seems all-too-often absent from so much modern employment. It also suggests an intimate connection with the land as the farmer revels in the sunlight. How should this generation fight the anxieties of the modern world? Make a thing. Be proud of your labor. Work with your hands. Get outside. It’s the back to nature / Green Movement with a melody.

Listen to it all yourself and tell me what you hear:

Check back in the future for posts on Arcade Fire, The Bravery, Blackalicious, Kanye West, and anything else I’ve got on repeat in my 30 GB of music.

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