Everyone, stay calm. Take a deep breath. (Or don’t, because I know I haven’t since the first signs of real studio work began appearing on social media last year). It’s finally here: Crack-Up was released last week via Nonesuch Records, the third studio album from Fleet Foxes who after nearly six years have returned in a decidedly grand fashion. Crack-Up is an epic of complex, smart, and just plain beautiful tracks that go better together, making sense musically and lyrically in context of the record yet feel slightly incomplete alone.
Following 2011’s Helplessness Blues, the five-piece indie folk-rock group from Seattle had seemingly disbanded; frontman Robin Pecknold enrolled at Columbia University and spent some time on self-rediscovery in the great outdoors while he struggled to reconnect with the music and purpose he had begun with but that fame and ego threatened to overshadow. He occasionally appeared for solo performances, but there was no sign or news of Fleet Foxes. The name was intermittently brought up in conjunction with the band’s former drummer Josh Tillman, who left Fleet Foxes in 2011 and began performing as the provocative Father John Misty soon after.
Pecknold began posting hints and updates about a new Fleet Foxes record on his Instagram account about one year ago, actively replying to fan inquiries and lifting the veil from the production process and the band’s activity. His proclivity for dropping rather significant information (such as release dates, collaborators, and tour information) required music news outlets to almost comically dig through and report on his Instagram comments due to this direct-to-fans approach.
Crack-Up is a clear change in sound from Fleet Foxes and Helplessness Blues, much more concept-based and experimental than its predecessors. Every note and word is so purposeful, so carefully-planned, resulting in this record that only could have come into being after the years of working and perfecting that no real timeline or outside pressure to produce allowed for. This being said, Pecknold’s familiar and distinctive voice that had been missing for so long easily cuts through any apprehension, any uncertainty that could come with a highly anticipated return such as this – it is completely Fleet Foxes through and through, just a little older, a little more experienced, a lot less facial hair.
This attention to detail is found in the very first note in the album opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” that begins on the same note that lingered at the end of Helplessness Blue‘s last track “Grown Ocean,” finding Pecknold in a state of dark, inward struggle that shifts back and forth in front of an expansive orchestral arrangement.
“Cassius-” and “-Naiads, Cassadies” follow in a dueling yet dual pairing that abruptly stop and start within each other, a method that Pecknold often uses within songs but rarely across. This marked decision, this continuation of ideas and sounds across tracks is largely what calls for this album to be enjoyed as a single entity played through, in order – the tracks don’t always make sense standing alone. The next track “Kept Woman” slows into a more ballad-like commentary on fame and its aftermath, backed by a continuous piano melody that seamlessly shifts between minor and major progressions before setting the tone for the next track.
Perhaps what felt like the most classically Fleet Foxes track was the lead single, the epic “Third of May / Odaigahara” that clocks in at just under nine minutes. It follows a timeline, each verse representing different eras in Fleet Foxes and the friendship between Pecknold and bandmate Skyler Skjelset, whose birthday is the titular third of May. Pecknold provided an annotation of his lyrics, giving a glimpse into the depth and intricacy that goes into his songwriting.
The last single released before the album, “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me” is a really simple, simply beautiful midpoint that manages to be hopeful and ominous at the same time and features a number of homonyms, a device that Pecknold sprinkles fairly often throughout Crack-Up‘s lyrics.
“Mearcstapa” carries a feeling of isolation and doubt that recalls the inward struggle of the album opener, emphasizing the prevalence of this during the creation of the record. (You can hear Pecknold dissect the making of the track here.) This theme is continued in “On Another Ocean (January / June),” which in itself reflects two states of being in the contrasting parts of the track that presumably represent a shift in Pecknold’s mindset and the resulting internal conflict.
“Fool’s Errand” was the second single released and most easily stands by itself within the record, embodying all trademark Fleet Foxes-y qualities with its rich arrangement and harmonies accompanying Pecknold’s voice soaring high in self-aware lyrics.
The last two tracks “I Should See Memphis” and the eponymous “Crack-Up” are an even deeper dive into Pecknold’s psyche, finding him quietly ruminating on his decisions and relationship with the world outside of himself. “Crack-Up,” inspired by a telling F. Scott Fitzgerald essay of the same name, expands and ends on a note of hope and near serenity that, if this record is any indication, will bleed into the musicality of the already-announced fourth LP Gioia.
Crack-Up is a statement, a career-defining masterpiece made so wrenchingly personal – they are Pecknold’s very essence and soul yet he manages to draw them out and paint them over so as to make them relatable in their tangibility, in the feeling of pure humanity that makes the words raw despite the imagery masking them. For every somber, dark, shift there is an equal and greater surge in defiant beauty, hopefully offering some peace and contentment for listener and artist alike.
Fleet Foxes is currently on tour, and they will be performing at the Mann Center on July 31st with Animal Collective. For tickets and more information, visit the XPN Concert Calendar.
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