As we continue with our week of folk music, I wanted to take a look at a contemporary band that fused folk with other genres, just as we saw Neko Case do with alternative country. Our song today comes from around the same time. The same year, to be exact.
Fleet Foxes came out with their self-titled debut in 2008. One year later, I was lucky enough to see them play live at the Pitchfork music festival in Chicago. It was my first music festival, and I remember Fleet Foxes playing “Ragged Wood” clearly, as it was one of their more popular hits.
In “Ragged Wood”, as well as many of their songs, Fleet Foxes bring rich harmonies in a mixture of indie folk with lush, pop sophistication.
“Ragged Wood” is the third song of Fleet Foxes debut album. The song opens with full-throated harmonies, plucking arpeggios, and a rhythmic snare that brings energy. That energy carries through the first two verses, until releasing the tension for the third. After that, the song transitions from an all acoustic arrangement to a section lead by an electric guitar. This in turn transitions to the last section of the song, building the energy to a crescendo with crashing cymbals, harmonizing vocals, and a repetitive, electric riff.
While folk songs tend to draw on narratives more, we see less of that in the lyrics to “Ragged Wood”. Instead, the song reads as a plea to a departed loved one, but in a way that calls to mind simpler times or fictional circumstances. “Come down from the mountain, you have been gone too long / The spring is upon us, follow my only song”.
The imagery evokes scenes of nature, alongside themes of yearning and freedom in the lyrics. Lines like, “The world is alive now, in and outside our home / You run through the forest, settle before the sun” do this particularly well.
One verse that continues to elude me is the third, which seems to hint at some meaning that I can’t quite nail down.
“In the evening light, when the woman of the woods came by
To give to you the word of the old man
In the morning tide, when the sparrow and the seagull fly
And Johnathan and Evelyn get tired”
This is also the point in the song where the driving energy dies down. My best guess is that “the word of the old man” is what makes the narrator’s love leave. But it’s really not that clear.
I don’t mean to poke for holes when I analyze lyrics. They’re simply one of the most interesting parts of a song to me. I’ll admit though, that I can sometimes become frustrated when I have trouble deciphering their meaning. But it’s possible that I put too much pressure on understanding what an artist is trying to say, instead of allowing a song to just be what it is.
I can appreciate ambiguity in art. Not everything has to be explained. And if you want to call that an easy out, go watch Inception, come back and tell me that it all makes perfect sense, and explain to me an interpretation free of plot holes.