My first encounter with Fleet Foxes, which happened in 2008, had nothing to do with music. Instead it concerned the painting Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This wonderfully mad medieval painting is, of course, the cover art for the band's self-titled debut album. Because I'm a huge fan of Bruegel's work, and because I'm a huge fan of a novel and poem inspired by two of Bruegel's paintings (the novel is Sasha Sokolov's Between Dog and Wolf, and the poem is W. H. Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts"; the novel is inspired by The Hunters in the Snow, and the poem by Fall of Icarus), the CD immediately caught my eye when I passed the desk of this paper's then music editor. I picked it up and began identifying the parables portrayed by the village people: the shitting on the world, the pissing on the moon, the fire farting, the man picking up horse shit, the man rubbing his ass on a door, the man falling from the ox, and so on. I returned the CD to the desk and didn't listen to it until 2010.
This was my first encounter with the Fleet Foxes' music. The location: Caffe Vita in Pioneer Square. The season: spring. What I was doing: drinking prosecco and reading a new edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. What I slowly began to notice: something beautiful about the space, the tables, the Neapolitan pizzeria, the young woman with a cup of green tea, the large windows, the brick buildings, the train station, the clock tower, the planes heading to the airport, the clouds over West Seattle. I finally realized that an unknown pop tune was fusing all of this beauty into one moment. My attention focused on the tune: It came from a speaker behind the counter, the singer's voice was angelic, and the harmony rose and flowed like wind on the mountainside. When the spell ended, I asked the barista (who was the lead singer for Yuni in Taxco, Ross Beamish) for the name of the band. He did not hide the fact that my question surprised him. Everyone in Seattle knew of this band. How could I not know Fleet Foxes?
"Blue Ridge Mountains" was the tune that moved me from the cover of Fleet Foxes to its contents. Immediately after hearing it in the cafe, I downloaded the full album onto my smartphone and spent the rest of the week completely absorbed by its bizarre and bucolic beauty. Bizarre because it seemed to come from nowhere; bucolic because the songwriter, Robin Pecknold, had a will to enchantment in the way some people (usually businesspeople) have a will to power. The only other indie band that had this kind of will—a flagrant will to enchantment and a rejection of the abject, the ugly, the noisy, the atonal—was in my mind (which has a very limited understanding of this kind of music) the Sea and Cake. But Fleet Foxes sound nothing like the Sea and Cake. The Sea and Cake are of their time, the mood of their moment. They sound like the 21st century. Fleet Foxes have their backs turned to the future and face the midpoint of the second half of the 20th century.
When I exhausted every tune on the debut, I bought the Sun Giant EP, which turned out to contain a tune that bewitched me for a good month, "Mykonos." The whole EP is great, but that particular song did a number on me. The tunes "Montezuma" and "The Plains/Bitter Dancer," which are on the band's latest album, Helplessness Blues, also bewitched me wickedly. Indeed, Fleet Foxes began to exert a strange influence on my behavior. I more and more found myself listening to music I don't usually listen to: America's "A Horse with No Name," Neil Young's "Tell Me Why," and Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Southern Cross." Why this sudden turn in taste? Because I wanted to better understand the Fleet Foxes' mode of enchantment.
My kind of music is made not by musicians but by programmers. I love the urban artificiality of techno, the digital detonations of dub, the sampled loops of hiphop. Music made with actual instruments is not my kind of thing. It's not urban, inhuman, detached enough. I dislike authenticity and praise virtuality. Fleet Foxes are very folksy, and Pecknold's lyrics evoke rural settings and yearnings: "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." But Fleet Foxes are not from the country; the members were raised in a big city and rose to fame in a big city (Seattle's metropolitan area has nearly four million people). It is here that I think the magic of their music exists: It is a pure concentration of bucolic evocations. This music happens almost entirely in the imagination and does not refer to any reality. Pecknold's lyrics are interconnected codes that float with hologram-like autonomy.
In short, this music is a part of the old pastoral tradition in art. What we are hearing and feeling is an urban idealization of country life, a kind of Marie Antoinette playing a shepherdess at the Palace of Versailles. So, yes, Fleet Foxes' tunes are artificial, but they are also not empty. There is real depth and emotion in these placeless rural fantasies. But most importantly of all, there's no romanticism in their tunes. One drop of romanticism would kill Fleet Foxes dead.
When I expressed some of these ideas to a friend recently, she agreed that Fleet Foxes are good, but not so original or exceptional. Bands like Carissa's Wierd, Iron and Wine, and, to a lesser extent, Band of Horses, she claimed, prepared not so much the ground for Fleet Foxes but a local audience that would appreciate their music. This may be the case, but those bands have little or no effect on me. With Fleet Foxes' tunes, I feel as if I have entered a wondrously self-contained and self-sustained illusion of a world. I enter this world in the way a man enters a cabin in the woods and finds a fire in the hearth.