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“Looking back on Fleet Foxes’ ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’ after 10 Years”

At a certain point, the study of great, timeless pieces of music becomes also a study of geography itself. Just consider how bound to spatial specifics the founding American black musics are — jazz to New Orleans, Kansas City and Chicago, blues to the Mississippi delta, Memphis and, of course, Birmingham, England. I would say that this is surely the case for the Fleet Foxes as well, though perhaps not to quite the extent which is applicable to their fellow Seattleites Band of Horses.
But still, especially when as they start singing about some vague, undefined “frontier” as they do in my personal favorite song by them, “He Doesn’t Know Why,” you can’t help as a listener internalizing all over again the fact that these guys really do see the same stuff we see, and their kudos is for their making something out of it that we couldn’t.
And it seemed appropriate upon this 10th anniversary of the band’s big break in the form of the Sun Giant EP and the “giant” self-titled debut LP upon which “He Doesn’t Know Why” is the mathematical and emotional centerpiece, that I’d handle something so unchanging as geography itself.
Also, as is my probably annoying propensity, I’m going to mention the grunge documentary Hype!, which is set in Seattle and takes the viewer through a thorough slide show of the city’s transformation from “sleepy little fishing town” or something like that to the ostensible cultural mecca of the world, one which would attract the attention of corporate TV commercials and even chic East Coast style magazines. There’s this part in Hype! with this random dude (who certainly seems pretty crazy, as he’s like cutting up these apparently valuable concert posters) sort of celebrating Seattle’s occult “weirdness” and tendency toward housing serial killers and such. He explains all this with the observation that “You can’t go no further and still be in the U.S.”
Now, unlike The Shins’ James Mercer, all of the members of the Fleet Foxes are actually native Northwesterners. Typically I try not to pry too much into musicians’ backgrounds, but it does add a certain zest to this story, especially because it’s actually more endearing to hear a person bashing where they grew up than trying to ingratiate to some trendy place as if culturally sucking up to its audience — the former makes it seem more like the process actually had to take place for the sake of relative sanity.
All over Fleet Foxes, in my opinion, we find genuine, bona fide little episodes of geographic lament, such as friendlessness (“I don’t see / Anybody that dear to me”) in “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” “White Winter Hymnal” which imagines a bloody trek through a snowy nowhere, and then my main subject “He Doesn’t Know Why” which combines the theme of this mysterious “frontier” with the repeated, and in my opinion the only bad Fleet Foxes lyrics ever, clamoring that “There’s nothing I can do”.
Now, it’s true that Fleet Foxes aren’t really like stylistically ingenuous to the year 2008 — their reflective brand of folk rock could have easily issued in 1972 and nobody would have thought it too futuristic. What it did, basically, is cash in on people’s newfound patience and desire to engage in placid, orchestral folk rock. It was like a musical redefinition of life itself for a nation grown virulently disillusioned, soured before the unconscionable machismo of our military and hence given to a sort of cultural farewell to arms.
Whether or not Beach House’s album Devotion truly blossomed to a partnering stature of this (and I believe it did) within the same year, the patient, dead-to-the-world tranquility of the Foxes was truly the stuff of miracles, and they became megastars to the tune of even getting a prime time Saturday Night Live gig, all by basically playing folk guitar, albeit on the strength of some otherworldly vocal pipes of Robin Pecknold. No doubt, it’s Peck at the center of “He Doesn’t Know Why” and he really puts on a show, again eschewing mainstream, corporate American culture by making the subject matter of his rock music not romantic, not violent, but platonic and brotherly (“In the gentle light as the morning nears / You don’t say a single word of the last two years / Where you’ve been or if you reached the frontier / My brother you were born”). For all we know, it could be the same person he’s singing about in one of my other favorites, “Ragged Wood”: “Call me back to / Back to you”. The sentiment is the same: it’s a simple yearning for company, for the return of the friend, undeniable feeling on wax in this case in the form of folk rock which gets by on crystal-clear and punctilious production, some well-placed banjo, progressive song structures complete with tempo changes and again, those chops of Robin Pecknold’s.
But getting back to those “bad lyrics” (the repetition of the phrase “There’s nothing I can do”), I think that might be partly Pecknold’s way of attoning for the fact that the music they’re making here is really essentially retro, and also, perhaps even more importantly, the fact that at this point everybody knows that music isn’t going to change the world. Look at Hype! itself and the grunge movement: that illustrated without a doubt the power of music, only to see the nation devolve once again into a foolish “preventive” war the very next decade in which innocent people were killed. In “He Doesn’t Know Why,” Robin Pecknold has perceived where the sidewalk ends both geographically and artistically, but the real miracle under the cloak of pristine pop is that he’s still able to conceal something — what exactly drove him to pen this beautiful ballad about a nondescript, platonic friend. In a way, it is still itself my last unknown frontier in music.

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