The minute Robin Pecknold began describing the luxurious artwork for the Fleet Foxes’ debut album back in 2008, you knew something special was about to happen. “I like that you can’t really take it for what it is, that your first impression of it is wrong,” Pecknold said in an interview with Mojo. The cover art, which is the 1559 painting Netherland Proverbs by the Dutch landscape master Pieter Bruegel the Elder, represents the musical style of the band’s self-titled project almost perfectly. Pecknold enjoys how there’s chaos in every scene within the painting, fittingly corresponding with every twist and turn present on the record.
Pecknold has been the lead vocalist and guitarist with the Fleet Foxes for a little over ten years now. Even through adversity, he’s always dealt with life and music in a generally fluorescent way. Hitting the scene a decade ago in the midst of pop music ascending to the forefront of the industry, the Fleet Foxes traded party music for folk-inspired ballads filled with tales about rising suns, fictional tales, and odes to Pecknold’s family members.
It’s incredible how Pecknold can do so much with so little. He paints his own picture through his dreamy Martin acoustic guitar and uber-melodic vocals throughout the 40-minute running time. While their first effort was far from their most abstract, Pecknold and company pride themselves on creating instrumentals that represent their thematic endeavors. For example, their introduction to the folk landscape, “Sun it Rises,” actually mirrors a sun rising. Even though lyrics such as, “the sun rising dangling there/golden and fair in the sky,” doesn’t seem groundbreaking at face value, the ascending acoustic performance is grand enough to get by.
Pecknold even admits that the awe-inspiring “White Winter Hymnal” constitutes meaningless lyrics, and states that it’s just “a simple jam that’s focused on singing.”
There’s no switch-ups in the way of song construction like there is on their most recent effort, Crack-Up, yet there didn’t really need to be. Fleet Foxes acts as a modern-day Beach Boys album, riddled with dreamy horn arrangements and warmer execution. Even in interviews, Pecknold suggests that he’s in a friendlier mind state. Crack-Up on the other hand, undertook a more serious tone, with Pecknold mumbling his way to sadness on each and every track. Even the production on Crack-Up sounds a lot more desolate.
On their debut album however, the Fleet Foxes manage to capture listeners with impassioned Gospel-style ballads, and catchy riffs. Pecknold sufficiently sounds like a leader of a choir at a church letting his voice ring throughout the halls.
The Seattle natives flawlessly transitioned from songs about simple everyday life happenings, to fictional accounts about murder (“Tiger Mountain Peasant Song”), and protecting some girl (“Your Protector”).
Pecknold uses a few of these tunes as a way to create a baseline for what would be his more experimental side later on in his career. For example, the very raucous “Quiet Houses” features the lead singer repeating the same lyrics, but using them as a part of the upbeat percussion samples. Moments like these come off as inspirations from Pet Sounds, or anything else Brian Wilson has done melodically.
The band utilizes their more reflective side on the final three tracks, specifically on the very woodsy closer, “Oliver James,” where Pecknold writes about his grandfather and old furniture from his childhood. He uses his bellowing voice to say everything he needs too, before time is up. It’s a gateway for the rest of the Fleet Foxes’ career, and a beautiful one at that.
Fleet Foxes represents a lighter side to Pecknold’s songwriting and musical ambitions, something we haven’t seen in quite some time. It’s a tremendous album to look back on because of how much they’ve progressed creatively over the past decade. Ironically, fans will probably never see a project like this from them again. It’s okay though, because musicians progress in life.
All in all, their 2008 release achieved cult status in less than a year, with many calling it an instant classic, and one of the best records of the decade. They might be right. Even after ten years, folk artists clearly use the Fleet Foxes’ debut album as an influence for their own ventures, and Pecknold clearly used Pet Sounds to enhance his chaotic and creative vision. That’s the beauty of music though.