What Robin Pecknold’s Late Night Performance Signals for the Fleet Foxes’ Future

The last major media appearance made by Robin Pecknold—that I can recall anyway—was in February of 2012 when the Fleet Foxes frontman appeared in a cameo on Portlandia . The sketch featured Joanna Newsom and poked fun at the neuvo hippie lifestyle that was joined at the hip with Newsom and Fleet Foxes at the time. The deeply cynical skit involved crushing Newsom’s harp in an attempt to fit it into a hatchback. It was funny, but poignant. Though Pecknold has proven more than capable of laughing at himself, it was unsettling to see him floating in the background of a joke about the world and sensibility his art helped create.

This just added to the general feeling that Fleet Foxes was maybe on the fade. The band’s second album, released in May of 2011, was an artistic triumph (I thought), but it failed to launch the band to Mumford and Sons heights and there seemed to be some disappointment at that. The sketch also ran a month after Josh Tillman announced he was leaving the folk rock group to pursue his own solo career (since revealed as Father John Misty).

That same year Facebook and Tumblr accounts under the handle “Fleet Foxes Sing” appeared and claimed to offer up recordings of Fleet Foxes covering songs by artists as varied as Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, Frank Ocean and MGMT. It was a hoax perpetrated by a man with the weak alias “Robin Peckingold,” a parody of the band’s light, acoustic, harmony-rich style, and perhaps a commentary on what some casual listeners viewed as a formulaic approach to these folk songs. The recordings gained wide recognition, and, though the band reportedly had a laugh at it, Fleet Foxes were once again on the wrong side of the joke. The fade seemed to be continuing.

Then, in the middle of the summer, a couple photos appeared on the band’s real Facebook page. One was of a MacBook attached to recording equipment titled “step one,” and a second was of a smashed up mandolin, titled “step two.” The general reading of the first was that the band was now beginning to work on its third album. The second was not so clear. Was this a studio mishap, a farewell, or maybe a signal that the band is moving away from its folk sound?

Then there was last night’s appearance by Robin Pecknold on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon . Pecknold was invited on the show to cover a song by Pearl Jam, part of a celebration around the legendary Seattle band’s latest album, Lightning Bolt . Clean shaven, looking healthy and in complete control of his instruments (electric guitar and vocals), Pecknold covered Pearl Jam’s classic “Corduroy.” The performance was spectacular and, I believe, something of a statement, not only in its muscular, sharp form, but in its content.

Remember that “Corduroy” was released on Pearl Jam’s own third full-length, Vitalogy, in 1994, bringing Pecknold into a sort of parallel with the song’s creator Eddie Vedder. It is also a song about new found fame and expectation, two things that Vedder was grappling with at the time and that have got to resonate strongly with Pecknold.

“It is about a relationship but not between two people,” Vedder told the Los Angeles Times while discussing the song in 1994. “It’s more one person’s relationship with a million people. In fact, that song’s almost a little too obvious for me.”

So when Pecknold sings, “I’m already cut up and half dead,” with that great heretofore unheard vocal smirk it sounds like a confession, after the fact. And when he sings, “All the things that others want for me can’t buy what I want because it’s free,” it sounds like a realization as fresh here as it was almost 20 years ago when Vedder first sang it.

It’s an encouraging sign and should give Fleet Foxes fans great hope for the band and its newly emboldened lead singer. Whatever it portends, it is clearly not a joke.

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