It has been five years since Robin Pecknold and the multi-instrumental, harmonious dudes of Fleet Foxes have released an album. Sure, they broke up when the drummer and Pecknold’s sister, the group’s manager, didn’t work out, but still: I’m starting to get mad.
I’ve listened to the Foxes’ albums, both their 2008 self-titled release and Helplessness Blues, more times than I care to count. Needless to say, I sincerely love this modern, nu-folksy spirit baby of “The Beach Boys” and “Crosby, Stills, and Nash.”
But I do not love them for their lyrics. I do not love them because they convey a super great message with what they sing.
As Christians, I find that we are often tempted to approach art of any kind (but especially music), looking for a “message,” a worldview preached by lyrics. If this worldview is something that can be supported by Christianity, then we approve. If not, we largely reject it (or at least feel very guilty while we enjoy it).
While this isn’t necessarily a bad practice, it is an incomplete one, as it disrespects the integrity of the art as a hybrid of both content and form. Moreover, I think it also disrespects the integrity of the human being, implying that we are largely moved and formed by “messages,” things that we need to think about or believe.
But the human person is not simply a “thinking creature.” We are creatures who are made in the image of a God who is Love (1 John 4:8). As such, we are primarily loving creatures. But as embodied, loving creatures, we do not simply engage the world unilaterally. Our hearts, our love is shaped by our interactions with the world, directing us to love particular visions of “the good life.” Thus more than music directs our “worldview,” it directs our love.
Before I move on, don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that lyrics don’t matter. What I’m saying, rather, is that perhaps there is more to music’s power on the human spirit than just lyrics. Perhaps, rather, the form of the music itself has a – well – formative power over us.
This is precisely why I love “Fleet Foxes,” because their music directs my love, creating a longing for a particular vision of life through the very form of the music.
1. Beauty Matters
One of the most notable qualities of any song by the “Foxes” is simply how lovely it sounds. “Lorelai” on Helplessness Blues is a perfect example of this.
Most music on the radio is written in the same time signature, encouraging us to clap on the second and fourth beats of the song. “Lorelai,” however, is written in the same time signature as a waltz. Its very rhythm almost conjures images of people in beautiful clothing, dancing elegantly through a ballroom. This visual is embedded within the song, not something that is sung about; it is not a message. It is a musical imaginary, something that the song rests on.
Beyond this, the instrumentation itself is layered, and if one listens closely, one can hear a flute playing softly throughout. It is staggeringly beautiful and somewhat heartbreaking, evoking almost a visceral reaction and a deep longing. It is a beauty that is not lectured about. A beauty not taught about. It is a beauty that is experienced.
Since all beauty is God’s beauty, and God alone is the Beautiful One, our hearts are trained to long for beauty, to seek the Beautiful One, whether we realize it or not. While there is a danger of seeing beauty as an end in itself (an issue I won’t address here), when we continually experience that which is truly beautiful, our hearts are pointed in the right direction, toward beauty and Beauty Himself.
2. Singing Together
One of the most notable qualities of almost any Fleet Foxes song is their use of harmony.
Anyone who has sung in a choir knows that harmony rests on sharing the song’s key and the song’s tempo. Harmony simply wouldn’t work if each voice sang its own song. Rather, harmonies rest on the song’s melody, and this means that each singer must listen to the others. The result is beautiful: multiple voices working together, each with its own contribution.
As human beings, we are made for harmony. We are made to join in the one song of praise to our Lord. We are made to work together to care for God’s world, to bring it to it to Him in daily offering.
It is a reality of the Kingdom of God, wherein there are people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9,10)
Harmony is an image of mutual submission, with each voice needing the other, listening to each other without overpowering any other. Fleet Foxes gives us an image, an embodied expression of the harmonious unity of God’s Kingdom.
3. Listening Again
The Fleet Foxes are ultimately so great because listening to them over and over again is deeply rewarding. The beauty, the harmonious vision of human flourishing – these are things we would do well to repeatedly receive as people designed for love.
There is a reason that the Church offers us the same Liturgy every week: repetition is important. It is through repetition that the Word is written on our hearts and lodged in our thoughts, shaping our internal rhythms and ways-of-being in the world according to Christ’s own Life.
All beauty and harmony are God’s. Beauty and harmony thus work on us and direct our hearts toward the source of all beauty and harmony: God Himself. We may not even realize this is happening, but it is.
Blessed Augustine once wrote, “You formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.” Everything we listen to is directing our hearts toward something, some particular vision of human flourishing.
That’s why I’m grateful for bands like Fleet Foxes, directing my heart through beauty and harmony toward life everlasting.
Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has an MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.
PHOTO CREDITS: Depositphotos
Fleet Foxes: Rasmin via Compfight cc
 James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), p. 7.