The Blakeian Beauty of Fleet Foxes

Fleet Foxes

Yes, yes, I know: a double alliteration in the title. Too clever by half I suppose.

But I can’t resist, because Fleet Foxes, a band from Seattle, has probably made the best album of the year so far. If I were to break down their sound, I would say that it’s folk music with vocals lifted straight from the Brian Wilson playbook. To do so, however, would be a grave disservice: this record should really be heard extensively to be really appreciated. There isn’t anything innoative in terms of songwriting, but everything is executed extremely well, from the arrangements to the vocals. I especially like how the drums sound on this album, which has a kind of rolling sound, like distant thunder, as opposed to the usual “punchy” sound of drums on modern rock albums. Of course, this being a folk record, acoustic guitars abound, but they sound jangly and not slumber-inducing.

The highlight, however, has to be the vocals, especially the harmonies. Like I said earlier, it’s totally lifting a page from Brian Wilson’s playbook, but if you are going to copy vocal harmonies from anyone, then you might as well steal from the best there is. The harmonies are just gorgeous on this album.

Now, onto the lyrics, which is where the title of this post comes from. Yes, the lyrics are Blakeian, in the sense that they consist mostly of pastoral images, oblique but beautiful. It is also Blakeian in the sense that there is a palpable undercurrent of gothic darkness beneath the idyllic imagery. In that respect, the lyrics are in the veins of Songs of Innocence and of Experience. There is a tension between the lyrics and the music, with the music suggesting innoncence and the lyrics suggesting something darker and more disturbing.

“White Winter Hymnal,” the second track from the album, is paradigmatic of the entire album.

The song starts off with an a cappella vocal, and then it builds up into a chorus of “oohs.” Then the instruments come in, and just as quickly, the song ends on the a cappella again. Then, consider the lyrics:

I was following the pack
all swallowed in their coats
with scarves of red tied ’round their throats
to keep their little heads
from fallin’ in the snow
And I turned ’round and there you go
And, Michael, you would fall
and turn the white snow red as strawberries
in the summertime..

I am not sure what kind of scene the lyrics are describing, but the imagery is very Blakeian in setting up the tension between the idyllic (a group of children walking in the snow, all bundled up) and the sinister (Michael, whoever that is, falls, and presumably something bad happens to him, as the white snow is turned red). The last four lines is very vague in terms of description, because Michael’s falling could be symbolic for a number of things, but none of which seems to be good. A literal reading could be that Michael dies, or a more metaphorical reading could be that somehow innocence was lost. But this is just the kind of oblique, but striking imagery that Blake uses in his poetry.

I find the last two lines especially striking in their imagery, as it implies that blood has been spilled. But what makes the image even more disturbing is the description of the reddened (or bloodied) snow as red as strawberries in the summertime. This is disturbing because you would not normally associate blood flowing on pure white snow with something innocent like strawberries in the summer. The use of imagery produces a powerful effect, and I am reminded of William Carlos Williams‘ poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow,” which employs a similar techique:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The effect produced is similar: namely, something quite ordinary is suddenly infused with a layer of sinister dread.

So yes, as you can obviously tell, I absolutely love this album. It is the rare combination of music and words that deserve to be heard by everyone. So you should definitely get a copy of this album. Plus, how can you not love a band that uses a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder?


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