Words About Music
Seattle-based indie folk band Fleet Foxes had a lot to lose with the anticipation building behind their six-years-in-the-making third album, “Crack-Up.” Bandleader Robin Pecknold went back to college, former drummer J. Tillman temporarily usurped his former band with three decent-to-brilliant albums, and many were left wondering if the group would fold before a new album would materialize.
After debuting some new stuff on tour with Joanna Newsom last year, Pecknold has hunkered down in the studio and given his fans a laborious, magical gift. “Crack-Up” is Fleet Foxes’ longest and most complicated album to date, with many songs comprising multiple movements. He’s back with the weird song titles, gorgeous harmonies, and transcendental instrumentation, but is “Crack-Up” actually a good album? Or did it fall victim to the hype machine like Bon Iver’s underwhelming return last year?
The album kicks off with the 6.5-minute, “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar.” A sad, somber, anxiety-ridden track intro suddenly kicks into a full-band affair, back-and-forth like an argument between an alcoholic loner and his uplifting, intervening friends. I like that this song presents itself as a tale with a narrative. It runs like a play, with drastic differences between various moods and movements, complete with an emotional arc. Loneliness begets argumentation begets clarity. This track also calls back to previous Fleet Foxes songs, beginning as a seamless transition out of the closing track on “Helplessness Blues” and closing with a sample of a high school chorus’s rendition of “White Winter Hymnal.”
The opening cut transitions nicely into “Cassius, -,” which features explicit references to protesting police violence, with lines like “Red and blue, the useless sirens scream” and “When guns for hire open fire/Blind against the dawn.” I like the approach Robin takes with the lyrics on this song, as this isn’t your usual naturalist bullshit. He named the song partly after Muhammad Ali, whose birth-name was Cassius Clay, and who passed shortly before these lyrics were fully composed. I love the echo-y reverb on this track, and the gloriously full instrumentation throughout. The strings and pianos at the end are also vast and unforgettable, and the transition right into ” – Naiads, Cassadies” is brilliant.
The political tones on this album continue, with ” – Naiads, Cassadies” tackling institutional misogyny and the ways it plays out in individual interaction. The instrumentation continues to astound here, with so much going on that it can be hard to parse apart. You can’t segment the horns away from the bass and the drums away from the strings on this track, nor this album as a whole. It’s just as beautiful sonically as any Fleet Foxes album before, and perhaps even more beautiful.
The next track, “Kept Woman,” addresses someone who engages in sex work. I love the way the instrumentation slowly builds on this track, omitting percussion in favor of a more atmospheric feel. Robin hits us with some pretty sick melodies here, and the way he stacks everything on top of each other is almost overwhelming. It’s a show-stopper, but not quite as bold and brilliant as the album’s first promotional single.
“Third of May / Ōdaigahara” is a 9-minute tribute to Robin Pecknold’s bandmate and confidante, Skyler Skjelset, whose birthday is May 3. This is an extremely intricate song, with numerous hidden references to Pecknold and Skjelset’s friendship, including some personal details about Skjelset that one might not pick up even the third or the fourth time. This track is intense and it only gets better as it carries on, hitting the listener with numerous refrains and various added elements that change and mutate throughout the song. I love the song’s instrumental outro, as it folds from uplifting boundlessness to a depressing, cloudy phrase that is meant to evoke the formless, naturalistic beauty of a mountain range. It’s a chaotic, beautiful nothing.
Pecknold returns to the topic of his damaged relationship with his bandmate on “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me,” an uplifting message of fraternity that laments the falling-out the two previously had while simultaneously celebrating the reunion. He also seems to reference the election of Donald Trump, explaining the shock he felt on Election Day that didn’t leave him by the time Inauguration came around in January. It’s a beautiful, simple song that doesn’t overstate itself.
He complicates things with the Beowulf-referencing “Mearcstapa,” with an excellent bass riff underscoring a song which conjures aqueous imagery. I am in love with this track’s instrumentation, especially the multi-layered grooves that come through after the first verse closes. It sort of reminds me of Radiohead, but with a bit more of a jazz influence. It has some psych elements to, especially with the way the track closes, with new layers of sound seemingly added every few seconds until it reaches a logical, completed finish.
“On Another Ocean (January / June)” evokes depressive feelings, whether Robin is on the East Coast missing his Pacific Northwest home or he’s touring “Helplessness Blues” in Japan in between fights with one of his best friends. It starts out a bit slow, but what it turns into as the song reaches its second half is something almost indescribable. I love the building intensity in Robin’s voice as he beats himself up for his inability to conquer his problems on his own.
He questions a higher power on the song “Fool’s Errand,” though I wonder if the power he’s questioning is love or the existence of some omnipotent force controlling the universe. Music-wise, this isn’t my favorite track here. The chorus is astonishing, but the transition between the verse and the chorus isn’t the smoothest on the album. And that’s not to say that all the transitions on this album are smooth; in fact, many of them are jarring and sudden. However, I feel like it’s weird to go back and forth between two grooves the particular way Fleet Foxes does it here. That’s a pretty small gripe in a sea of awesomeness, though, and the piano outro at the end of it provides a somber instrumental ending.
I love the poetic genius that gets put together on “I Should See Memphis,” with Robin detailing bitterness, anger, and romantic jealousy in a unique way, referencing ancient battle, boxing matches, and the American Civil War to evoke his willingness to see his anger through to its logical conclusion. He then turns this into more election-related imagery, cementing the singularity of this album’s self-contained nature. The track ends with some lo-fi, experimental layering that establishes an intangible darkness.
The darkness sets the stage for the album’s epic closer, “Crack-Up,” which returns to Robin’s internal strife. Not only is he at war with himself, but the world’s apparent refusal to stand together in defiance of an evil empire causes him to feel a rage that make him feel empowered to speak out. It’s nice to hear folk music that returns to its roots as being music for common folk, addressing the very power imbalances which directly affect all of our lives. The horns on this track are exquisite, whether it’s the ecstatic build in the track’s first half or the droning soundscape which composes the latter half. The album closes out on a somewhat hopeful note, but it’s still very ambiguous. In fact, ambiguous is a great way to describe the nature of this album, as Robin Pecknold consistently spends the album’s lyrics going back and forth between utter hopelessness and foward-thinking optimism. He tries to bring himself, and the audience, up to keep everyone afloat, and that’s a daunting task. Still, I think he accomplished what he set out to accomplish.
Overall, I have very few complaints about “Crack-Up.” While it may seem a bit boring and same-y at first, it truly rewards the listener with repeated listens and a deep dive into the intricate, ingenious lyrics. It’s extremely well organized and produced, and it gilds Fleet Foxes’ legacy as one of the most important folk acts of the 2000s. It’s a complete, holistic work of art that unfolds like a tapestry with its multitude of references, moods, and themes. It’s as literarily demanding as anything the band has put out before, and it puts Fleet Foxes right back on the top of our consciousnesses for very good reason. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take the group 9 years to regroup and put out another masterpiece.
SCORE — 9.50 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar, Cassius,-, – Naiads, Cassadies, Kept Woman, Third of May / Ōdaigahara, If You Need To, Keep Time On Me, Mearcstapa, On Another Ocean (January / June), I Should See Memphis, Crack-Up