Welcome back to regular subscribers, a final shout for my view of a handful of 2022 end tracks is here behind a paywall - if you want to read and support the newsletter, I’ve made the monthly and annual prices as small as Substack will let me. For those who don’t want to or aren’t able to contribute, you will continue to receive at least half a dozen posts a month from us, and any closer from an album in Acclaimed Music’s top 500 will always be free.
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For those that know me, you won’t be surprised to see that with a free choice, I’ve immediately chosen an album from 2008, a year in which I turned 25 and went to over 40 ticketed gigs and a few festivals. I saw more live music that year than before or since.One of those was in November, seeing Fleet Foxes at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in West London at a gig where they played nearly all of their debut album and the preceding Sun Giant EP. I distinctly remember the “you can hear a pin drop” atmosphere as lead singer Robin Pecknold sang the album’s plaintive closer ‘Oliver James’.
The song immediately follows one of the album's highlights, ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’, Robin’s ode to his brother Sean, showcasing some of the album's most potent vocals and chord progressions. Having a song like that followed up with an acapella song that is only backed by an acoustic guitar and some tapped-out sounds on the guitar itself works as a one-two punch. This is because the strong intimation from the song is that the titular Oliver James is not just a biblical recasting of the story of Moses with a baby washed up in the reeds in a wicker basket but rather one where it is their child that is gone.
The couple turns up at their brother’s house, emptier this time. There’s some validity to the idea that the song suggests they have tried to have a child before, but not everything went to plan, so the devastating loss of a young child is tinged with yet more sadness. As an ending to a natural and pastorally sounding album, it is an ending that, as Pitchfork said in their original 2008 review;
… doesn't shoo you out the door. Instead, Fleet Foxes let you linger for a few more bars, leaning forward to catch Pecknold's last syllable as it fades into the air. They don't seem to want the record to end any more than you will.
Those last few notes, fading into the silence, come back after one more moment of diplomatic silence. Despite the insinuation of the horrors of the loss of a child, the song is a warm hug that sends the listener away at the close of the album in a near catatonic state due to the almost out-of-body experience it describes in an other-worldly fashion. The song is an opportunity for Robin Pecknold to showcase his heart-stopping vocals on this pained elegy for lost innocence without the harmonies and reverb that dominate the other songs on the album.
The album is one of the first I reach for in early spring when, if it snowed around here, the last of the winter’s snow would melt. I hope that in 50 years, I can dwell on the spring of my years when reaching for this copper-bottomed classic debut. It is an album that reminds me of a time and place but is itself free from the trends and fads of 2008 and instead floats free from time, sounding like it could have been recorded at any point in the preceding fifty years.
Being single and earning money post-university were very useful for this.
Wonderful song...and I remember the same "pin-drop" atmosphere when they played it at the United Palace Theater in NYC on the Helplessness Blues tour.
What amazing cover art! I imagine it only exists on the internet and/or a tiny CD jewel case (a cassette tape inlay?). If it was released on LP, yay for 12x12" art!