Upheaval, transformation, succour: many of us are either actively witnessing – or desperately seeking – these conditions right now. All three states flourish on a pair of albums released last week that, in their distinct ways, grapple with the present moment.
Sufjan Stevens and Fleet Foxes’ main man Robin Pecknold are the two big, sensitive beasts of the early 00s indie rock boom, and here they offer up works of thematic heft and considerable beauty that tackle their authors’ anxieties head-on. Shared roots in folk music and a love of layer-cake harmonies and hushed hymnals flows between them.
Both had Covid work-arounds thrust upon them, and the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York provided sanctuary (for Stevens) and new lyrical impetus (for Pecknold). Stevens might be more of a public intellectual than Pecknold, with his occasional pronouncements on God and love, but the latter, who released Helplessness Blues in 2011 – as elegiac a song about existential turmoil as the Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize?? a generation ago – doesn’t exactly shirk the hard inner spadework. Each of these comeback albums describes a liminal state: The Ascension emphasises leave-taking – there is a song called Goodbye to All That, one called Run Away With Me – and transformative rebirth. Shore, meanwhile, finds Pecknold standing on terra firma, looking out at the unknowable beyond, vowing to honour all that life has to offer.
That’s where the shared ground beneath the two works runs out, however. Stevens, solo, has constructed a vast electronic universe of bold sounds out of the aptly named Prophet synths he had with him; Pecknold didn’t work with the rest of the Fleet Foxes, but collaborated judiciously, often with Grizzly Bear’s drummer, spending time in Paris and Portugal before lockdown.
Stevens wants to get in your face, blow out your speakers and make you dance; he is taking America to task. The bedrock of Lamentations is a hyper-digital fantasia worthy of PC Music; album opener Make Me an Offer I Cannot Refuse is an earworm impaled on a pincushion of needling, shifting sounds; it builds into a vortex of near-Kanye West proportions.
Pecknold offers ever more elegant mellifluousness; his nation’s political crisis helpfully put his own personal struggles in the shade, he has intimated. But the ladlefuls of beauty here never come at the expense of emotional and compositional rigour. Shore takes all the complexity of The Crack-Up, Fleet Foxes’ 2017 outing, and unites it with the immediacy of the band’s classic self-titled 2008 debut.
Although the track Jara is named after Victor Jara, the Chilean activist-musician who was killed when the US brought down the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, Pecknold’s beef isn’t with America, per se. Rather, he is bathing graciously in the “warm American Water” of those who went before him (American Water is a record by the late David Berman’s band Silver Jews). Pecknold’s first, moving words on the record are “For Richard Swift”, the songwriter-producer who died in 2018; the rest of Sunblind goes on to tap the departed energies of Judee Sill, Elliott Smith, Arthur Russell and numerous other lost singer-songwriters. The title track hails Berman and John Prine.
Shore is full of richly embroidered gratitude; the play of the seasons and the influence of the elements is ever-present. “And with love and hate in the balance,” Pecknold sings on the lovely album centrepiece Featherweight, “one last way past the malice, one warm day is all I really need.” The jazz piano cutting across the massed Beach Boys harmonies here is just exquisite. Pecknold’s hero Brian Wilson allowed him to sample an outtake from Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) on Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman.
Whatever his relationship status, Pecknold seems in love with the world; Stevens, by contrast, is breaking up with everyone and everything. At the root of The Ascension is his move away from Brooklyn, where he has lived for 20 years, to upstate New York – a leave-taking of Babylon that has coincided with the singer-songwriter “losing his patience” and, perhaps, trying to cram the essence of his moot 50 States project into one tortured, busy and hugely impressive record.
The Ascension represents a volte-face from the intense personal storytelling of 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, which laid bare Stevens’s complex childhood. Outward-focused but always addressed as though to a lover (or a listener, or God), The Ascension’s maximalist reckoning finds his horror at national affairs mirroring his own inner turbulence.
The singles thus far have focused on Stevens’s despair at the common weal: Video Game takes aim at the herd mentality while actively cultivating a pop listenership; the magnificent Sugar weighs up the power of cliche while seeking its sweet reward; and America recoils in horror from, well, America. But the rest of the album returns to the spiritual and physical passions of previous, myth-heavy Stevens works; his penchant for classical and biblical allusions recalls Bob Dylan’s.
A song called Ativan might sound like some minor Zoroastrian deity – a typical subject of a Sufjan reference – but it is in fact about anxiety medication. Both of these artistic reactions to dread feel weighty, in each artist’s individual canons as well as in the cultural moment. Stevens’s The Ascension is a kaleidoscopic reset, after which Fleet Foxes’ Shore supplies generous balm.
Star ratings (out of five)
Fleet Foxes: Shore ★★★★
Sufjan Stevens: The Ascension ★★★★
This article was amended on 28 September 2020 to remove a factual error about Richard Swift’s cause of death