From Fleet Foxes to Grizzly Bear: has the 'Pitchfolk' scene finally burned out?

With Bon Iver going awol and sales falling steadily, it looks as if the era of the heartsore wildman may be over

It is now for ever ago since Bon Iver released For Emma, Forever Ago. Ten years, to be exact. First out in July 2007, it achieved huge success after getting a wider release in February 2008, going on to top many of the end-of-year lists. This month, a re-release was announced to coincide with that anniversary. Justin Vernon famously wrote the album in his family’s Wisconsin hunting lodge, mid-winter, to recover from his break-up with Emma (for ever ago). Most of the early reviews mentioned this fact. It became the totem of a whole age: that heartsore wildman in his snowy log cabin came to stand in for a certain kind of masculinity in music: lonesome, beardsome, wounded, yet rugged. Some began to call it Pitchfolk – a group of high-IQ yet horny-handed acts, championed by the still-rising music website Pitchfork, clustered around Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine and Grizzly Bear.

Perhaps sensing how fatally enmeshed we’d already become with our tech, the movement reacted by asserting authenticity. At its best, it had an umistakable purity of heart in a callous age. At its worst, it was faux-rural ninnying for city slickers scrolling the Guardian website in a Croydon Starbucks: beige coffee-shop playlists, a tedious pre-echo of hygge. In its wake, a type of fan emerged who was the latter-day equivalent of the bro who’d follow Fairport Convention around folk festivals in the 70s. For these latter-day Whispering Bob Harrises, the correct pose was reverential, especially regarding Fleet Foxes, whose harmonies were always to be referred to as “angelic”.

Grizzly Bear
Roar power ... the not-very-intimidating Grizzly Bear. Photograph: Tom Hines

In 2017, Pitchfolk was finally back, but only to announce its own belated death. Bon Iver confirmed he is awol in electronica with 22, A Million. Despite moving to a major label, Grizzly Bear’s first album in five years charted at 27 in the US, while Iron & Wine’s return became his first to miss the US Top 40 in a decade. Fleet Foxes took six years to follow up 2011’s Helplessness Blues, and the result, Crack-Up, seems to have left some fans scratching their heads with the modesty of its ambitions.

Genre death can normally be recognised by the period-piece thought experiment: if most of the era’s big hits turned up in a film set in 2008 now, they’d seem like stylised nods more than an emotional landscape. Its cultural footprint can still be traced, however. You can hear echoes in Sun Kil Moon’s gnarled mutterings, or the War on Drugs’s strain of indulgent cosmic wonderment, while Fleet Foxes gave us festival headliner Father John Misty. So, thanks for that. I think.


Gavin Haynes

The GuardianTramp

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