Fleet Foxes’ gorgeous self-titled record has been kicking melodies around my brain for a few weeks now, but the one that really won’t leave (my head or the bloggernet) is the stunning chorale “White Winter Hymnal.” In a Daytrotter interview the band said the lyrics are “not really meant to mean something,” but there’s actually a rich story here:
I was following the pack
All swallowed in their coats
With scarves of red tied ’round their throats
To keep their little heads
From falling in the snow
And I turned ’round and there you go
And Michael you would fall
And turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime
There’s a group of small children (“little heads,” “swallowed in their coats”) tottering through the snow — it could be a duckling line of schoolkids, bundled up and following their teacher on a nature hike, or a cluster of munchkins packing snowballs as they flank a rivaling ice fort. Meanwhile, the red scarves bode ominously, with the peppermint contrast of red on white snow and the surreal possibility that the children’s heads are somehow severed, steadied on top of their necks only by a woolly tourniquet.
With the words “there you go,” the harmonies become strained and the scene worsens. Michael falls, his head toppling off his shoulders and spilling marmalade blood into the snow. But the imagery of “strawberries in the summertime” dissolves the horror almost before it starts, transporting us to a sweet, sunny memory as the melody returns to its first, tranquil chord.
When Fleet Foxes said they didn’t intend “White Winter Hymnal” to have much meaning, they must have meant only to highlight the song’s lush melody. But packing exposition, climax, and denouement into just eight lines, the song is a beautiful, spare piece of poetry that lets listeners imagine their own pages in between.