Good Writing in Music: Fleet Foxes

In the age of “baby, baby, baby,” when our airwaves ooze the saccharine uselessness of cliched love songs and the machismo vulgarity of mainstream hip hop and modern rock and roll, it is easy to give up on music writing as a form of art. But a frank look at history proves two things: (1) Terrible music writing has always been with us and (2) so has its foil.

One such foil is that of Fleet Foxes, an indie band signed out of Seattle. In their most recent album, “Helplessness Blues,” the listener will not endure the word “baby” or even the well-trod phrase “I love you,” but instead will find wrenching and biting stories and poems about love and regret and brotherhood. If the mainstream radio is McDonald’s, then “Helplessness Blues” is the eagle-egg dinner omelette of the wily, 18th century outdoorsman.

Observe one my favorite songs from that album, a song entitled “Sim Sala Bim”:

Let’s break down the lyrics here in a level of scrutiny that would obliterate any typical pop song, but instead magnifies and blesses “Sim Sala Bim.” The first bit goes:

He was so kind, such a gentleman tied to the oceanside
Lighting a match on the suitcase’s latch in the fading of night
Ruffle the fur of the collie ‘neath the table
Ran out the door through the dark
Carved out his initials in the bark

We start with an almost banal description of a man “tied to the oceanside.” He is two parts Humphrey Bogart and one part Carey Grant, with a dash of Bruce Willis, maybe. He is lighting matches on suitcases; he is ruffling dogs’ hairs and carving monograms into trees. This character is every bit an overdone romantic hero — near useless in any good story. But:

Then the Earth shook, that was all that it took for the dream to break
All the loose ends would surround me again, in the shape of your face

Something happens. That is how stories work, right? Something always happens, otherwise we do not write about it. This “something” has changed the speaker’s understanding, changed the childish perception of the tall, dark, and handsome trope — the inconsistencies begin to add up, the small unanswered questions builds to the big, un-ignorable question.

In short, a son discovers his father is a human man. He sees him for all his acts of shame, despite the son’s religious hope for otherwise.

What makes me love you despite the reservations?
What do I see in your eyes?
Besides my reflection hanging high?

And the son must reconcile the faulty romantic hero with the facts surrounding his father. He must discover why a man can treat him so poorly, but still have magnetism. Is it himself he sees in his father? Is it the hope his initial impressions were right and that these subsequent, gritty ideas were wrong?

Are you off somewhere reciting incantations?
“Sim Sala Bim!” on your tongue?
Carving off the hair of someone’s young?

The chorus, haunting and rich, occurs only one time. It has the hook of a chorus chanted in perpetuity, but instead it rings like a lone bell in a moor, and the musicians fade to near silence. The singer then near-whispers the final scene:

Remember when you had me cut your hair?
Call me ‘Delilah’ then, I wouldn’t care

Regardless of violence-less abuse from the neglecting father, our hero — the son — cannot quit his devotion to a distant man, a tragedy with his face, just aged. It is an ending that brings the careful listener to tears, but it is cut short by an assault of sound, a building of musical tension — a frantic row of melodies like a youth, running from home to stop short of falling off the apex of a fjord.

But Katy Perry has some catchy stuff too, I guess.

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