Six years since the release of Helplessness Blues, folk artisans Fleet Foxes have settled comfortably back into our plane of consciousness with their captivating and lyrically heavy new album, Crack-Up.
Comprised of eleven tracks, Fleet Foxes’ fourth album is anything but condensed; it has been crafted with an intricacy and a tenderness that permeates every song. Departing from the relatively ambient, endearing role that Fleet Foxes has for so long assumed, Robin Pecknold instead embraces a healthy dose of cynicism and a raw critique of both himself and the new world within which Fleet Foxes now resides.
This year has seen the return of many old, indie favourites, such as Beach Fossils, WAVVES and The Drums, and it has been a gamble to see whether or not they would take the pop/electro route like so many others have (Weezer, Gorillaz or Phoenix, to name a few disappointments). To return with something resembling familiarity in this competitive environment is its own risk, and Fleet Foxes have done the clever thing by coalescing what we know and love (ambitious, swooping melodies) with something a little different, but not altogether unwelcome (longer tracks with moody, contrasting textures).
Crack-Up is tenuously associated with past albums, save for its close relationship with nature, as it is thematically aligned with the Classics, suggesting an awareness of, but not overindulgence in, politics and society. It relies more so on implicit ideas rather than the simple saccharinity that Fleet Foxes is capable of – making it their most enthralling album to date.
Note: It is impossible to analyse this album without taking into consideration Pecknold’s very expansive and coherent thoughts on it. On If You Need To, Keep Time on Me, Pecknold shared that it was written about “post-election confusion” (along with the closing track, and album namesake, Crack-Up), while Cassius, – was of direct relevance to the protests following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. While Pecknold acknowledges that creating an album that is both culturally and politically aware is necessary (as it is impossible not to do, in this climate), it also does not take precedence over artists who are perhaps in a more relevant place to do so (i.e. Kendrick Lamar or Solange Knowles, as he says so himself).
The album is first and foremost an extraordinary sonic creation, and its significance is evident in Pecknold’s admission that recording Crack-Up “was the first time in my creative life that I really felt in control, and like I was making something very closely aligned with my values and my own listening predilections.”
So with that, let us begin.
Crack-Up is inaugurated with I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar, a three-part, lengthy track, which opens with Pecknold softly crooning,
I am all that I need
And I’ll be till I’m through
And I’m light on my feet
Good to be without you.
An excellent introduction to Crack-Up, its production is thoughtful and self-reflective. It alternates between guitar-heavy moments and moments of quiet, aided by the steadiness of classical instruments lighting up the background. Its third act, Thumbprint Scar, is accompanied by a persistent violin, and evokes the sweetest nostalgia for fans of old, as it ends with a recording of an acapella version of White Winter Hymnal, performed by high school kids.
Cassius, – begins as a contemplative track whose lyrics consider a leaderless, often listless existence that can come from a lack of direction (either political or otherwise), before descending into a vibrant, percussive track, as Pecknold’s trilling asks:
Are we all so tame?
Third of May / Ōdaigahara is one of the most outstanding songs on Crack-Up, in all its fullness, triumphant rises and concentrated falls. Pecknold noted that the song was written about his relationship with Skyler Skjelset, and reflects the turbulence and evolution of their partnership as friends and as musicians, as it is lyrically the most complex track. Across the vast entirety of its 8 minutes, it morphs from vibrant, to soft, to dissonant. It is wilfully romantic and rich in sentiment, with the most moving lyrics urging us to be appreciative of this life, and that its meaning is found in connections:
Life unfolds in pools of gold
I am only owed this shape if I make a line to hold.
If You Need To, Keep Time on Me is the simplest track, an intermission to signal that we have journeyed halfway through Crack-Up. This track sees Pecknold at his most direct, accompanied only by a piano and guitar, and what appears to be, remarkably, the least offensive presence of a xylophone. The song considers the undetermined nature of existence, and suggests that comfort can be found in relying on one another when everything else seems so transient:
How could it all fall in one day?
Were we too sure of the sun?
If you need to, keep time on me.
Mearcstapa is a sharp return to dissonance, broken only by the gradually pervasive (but quickly disregarded) and seemingly 80s-inspired guitar and bassline. Predictably, it descends into a chaotic union of percussion, before closing with a jaunty violin riff.
Fool’s Errand is comparatively brighter and more energetic, partially attributed to the addition of the tambourine. Notably, the alternating warmth and melancholy of the violin (and the rolling melody which accompanies the cries of It was a fool’s errand!) possibly makes it the most familiar Fleet Foxes song on the album.
I Should See Memphis is the penultimate track of the album and the most consistently gentle of the lot. The initially imperceptible harmony between Pecknold and Skjelset is something that you start to feel in your bones, which soon becomes mirrored by that of the violin and the cello. The placid crooning of Pecknold sends the song toward its end, in echoes and staticky sounds, which is luckily saved by the abrupt entry of the closing track.
With a significant portion of the album behind us, it becomes increasingly evident that Crack-Up is a deliberate scattering of sorts, as it soon ventures out of the darkness of the first half of the album into a considerably lighter and more enlightened piece of work. Crack-Up is a garish, triumphant way to end the album, consistent in its inconsistence of melody and mood. Trombones become more evident toward the end of this track, and Pecknold’s voice soon dissipates, until there is just the sound of footsteps to signify the end.
For everything that is musically impressive about Crack-Up, as a work of art, it is important because of how incredibly courageous it is. Pecknold unapologetically traverses this vast and dynamic landscape with a cosmic, definitive energy that manifests itself in a way previously unseen. So, while it may not satisfy those who are heavily reliant on the “old”(and perhaps more palatable) Fleet Foxes, as a longtime devotee of the band, I would recommend considering it in its entirety. Not overtly politicised, Crack-Up manages to be compelling, pensive and authentic – perhaps one of the most sonically elaborate and sprawling albums put together in quite some time.
Another note: I listened to this album thrice – once, at home, surrounded by creature comforts; the second, distractedly, as I completed errands; and the third, as I wrote this, on an aeroplane. While it is important to consider musical projects for their stylistic components (and Crack-Up should undoubtedly be commended as a sonic masterpiece), it should also be considered for its more romantic aspects, such as their ability to console or inspire. By the third round of listening to this album, I was exceptionally moved; it is full of so much depth, and passion, and I became so familiar with the album that it became a comfort (crucial during these plane rides where I am convinced I will plummet to my death at any given moment).
While there is no wrong way to consume music, as we dipped in and out of the clouds, overlooking mountains and undisturbed worlds that we don’t deserve, it felt like the perfect backdrop to fall in love with something as devastatingly beautiful as Crack-Up.
No distractions, just a vast expanse of sky and ocean – and light. There is an endless cascading of light, and if this album has taught me anything, it is that so much of it is created by music.