After 6 years on hiatus, Fleet Foxes return with their third studio album, Crack-Up, out today via Nonesuch Records. Crack-Up is a study (pun intended) on independence, partnering, and complicated names. During the band’s hiatus, frontman Robin Pecknold famously enrolled at Columbia University to begin a delayed undergraduate program where he “got some academic pretensions out of [his] system” and finally during summer break resumed writing with Skjelset, his closest cowriter and original band member. The intervening years haven’t dampened Fleet Foxes’ buzz and Pecknold has managed to stay afloat in the 24-hour internet fame cycle, teasing the new album, touring with supergroup The Gene Clark No Other Band, jawboning with fellow indie frontgenius David Longstreth about indie rock on Instagram, and releasing a standalone single, since taken down, on Soundcloud called “Swimming.” Crack-Up comes at a time when almost any piece of art by a world-aware artist can seem politically relevant, and the density and complexity within can make any statement you can choose to hear.
Fleet Foxes’ current lineup is long time frontman Robin Pecknold, longtime members Skyler Skjelset, Casey Wescott, and Christian Wargo, and Morgan Henderson.
What’s most striking to me is how consistent this album’s sound is to the first two. As if only a year had gone by and Fleet Foxes were on the normal trajectory of any band. A few moments of lo-fi in-the-room ambience, some drastic textural shifts, gorgeous orchestrations, and Robin Pecknold’s unmistakable voice, all adding up to kind of what I expected might have appeared in 2013 if FF had hopped in the studio post-Helplessness Blues. There are moments where Pecknold tries singing in a wearied, lower register than we’re used to, and others where he opens up and lets the famous high notes fly. I found myself calling this album Helpfulness Blues as I kept forgetting its name, confused as I was by all the song titling.
Robin Pecknold’s lyric writing has always straddled the line between simple (I was following the/I was following the, or the first lines of Helplessness Blues) and dense, even esoteric (one of my all-time favorites: Sim sala bim on your tongue/Carving off the hair of someone’s young), and on this one, it seems like he’s trying to push this dichotomy until it breaks. The weighty song titles, stuffed with slashes and foreign words, are comically high-toned and suggest that Robin Pecknold’s time in college has made him all the more confident in his own intellectual ability. We’ve even seen him play faux musicologist on Instagram. While he’s obviously no dummy, some might say that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication (that saying is attr. da Vinci, learned from my wife).
Like a college paper that’s full of brilliant analysis but short on citations, the writing on the album will either sweep you up or freeze you out entirely. I found myself the former, wrapped in the massive vocal harmonies, falling in love with the modal chord choices, and then suddenly losing the thread as I was forced to chew on denser and denser writing. Moments of simplicity, especially in “If you Need To, Keep Time On Me”, were where I really really felt at home in this album. But I don’t like having to run to Genius when I need to understand a lyric. I want songwriters to make me feel it first before I google it.
On the whole, top-notch compositions make this album strong enough to hold up even though I felt a little bit like some of the writing was meant to show us that we need to read more. This is one that many of us will need a few months to fully digest.
Longtime fans of Fleet Foxes are probably unlikely to criticize this album for one simple reason: it’s a lush, beautiful work of art. Those fans already appreciate Robin Pecknold’s lyrical imagery and the band’s musical exploration. Ask any artist why they make music, and you’ll probably receive a two-fold response about artistic expression and fan enjoyment. Crack Up is indeed an album where Pecknold dares to explore and venture outside preconceived notions of “pop” music. And for this reason, Crack Up is an album for appreciative fans. However, that’s not to say new fans won’t “get it” or like it. But casual listeners (those who are hard-pressed to name any Fleet Foxes tune besides “White Winter Hymnal” – if they can even cite that song’s title) may find Crack Up a denser project that isn’t easily swallowed in one quick gulp. It’s also soaring and symphonic at times, and as such is a fuller, richer endeavor that creates a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience.
Perhaps the most approachable song for those fans is “Fool’s Errand.” Its graceful melody has an immediate, campfire sing-a-long intimacy, but what makes the song truly shine is Pecknold’s soaring vocals. Few singers can match the mellifluous tones of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, but on this song, it’s clear that Pecknold is one. It’s hard to deny the charm of the tone here with its echoes of The Beach Boys and My Morning Jacket. But where Brian Wilson experimented with a vast arsenal of sounds (animal and musical), Pecknold seems to be experimenting with tones. There is an ambient calm on “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” that suggests the band has reached a musical plateau. On their two previous albums, they were scaling the mountain; now they’ve reached the summit and are peacefully reflecting on the majestic views from their elevated post.
At no point should anyone listen to this album and think, “Fleet Foxes have grown up,” as this is simply not an applicable observation. This band has never lacked for depth, substance, or talent. On Crack Up they simply are revealing deeper levels of what has always existed. Their sound has evolved in the six years since Helplessness Blues, and the result is a mellow, artistic product. Savor this one like a fine wine.
From their Sun Giant EP to their two studio albums – Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes transformed indie folk into something spectacularly cinematic. They took us to places like “Mykonos”, “Blue Ridge Mountains”, and “The Cascades” and made them sound pristine and exotic. We were introduced to “Your Protector”, “Oliver James”, “Lorelai”, and “Innocent Son” and were left speechless after meeting them. Then suddenly, this mystical land vanished as frontman Robin Pecknold embarked on his own journey. Who could fault him for wanting to get an education and have new adventures and experiences? But as we all know, the itch to create music was unbearable, and Fleet Foxes have returned.
Expecting them to re-capture the energy and imagination of the part on Crack Up is a foolhardy enterprise, although admittedly I was one of them hoping for this to be so. On songs like the nine-minute, majestic “Third Of May/Odaigahara” and “Fool’s Errand”, a stunning and euphoric track, we are reminded of the Fleet Foxes that captivated hundreds of thousands of people. But beyond that, the album is much denser and far more introspective than what the band has ever released. It is, as such, their least accessible effort to date, but it still radiates a glimmering beauty, just a different one.
“If You Need To / Keep Time On Me”, for instance, is a stirring and graceful number, and it is arguably Fleet Foxes’ most intimate ballad they’ve written. Pecknold’s vocals are vulnerable yet rich, and the song feels like an apology to those he left behind. For the first time, we feel like we are sitting next to Pecknold, as he reveals his soul. Gone is the storyteller on this song, and it is replaced by a man with a heavy soul. The same feeling of immediacy exists on the melancholic “On Another Ocean (January / June)”, which also happens to be the album’s most brooding number. The ending, however, is sensational with the full orchestratra blooming into a memorable crescendo.
Crack Up isn’t without its challenges. The opener, “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar”, is like three songs in one, as the melody, arrangements, and Pecknold’s vocals constantly shift. It takes a few listens to appreciate its theatrical genius, but it is also easy to get lost in. On the companion numbers, “Cassius” and “Naiads, Cassadies”, Pecknold’s studies reveal themselves, as the songs are one part Greek tragedy and another part metaphysics. But then on a song like “Kept Woman”, Fleet Foxes find that perfect balance of remorse, self-reflection, and stirring, sonic brilliance. It is the album’s most gorgeous and haunting number.
Crack Up isn’t Fleet Foxes’ best album, but it is an extremely moving one. Its depth and density require multiple listens in order to truly appreciate what the band have created, which is a challenging, intelligent, and immensely beautiful record.
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